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New Hope for the Chesapeake Bay, Maybe

Presidential intervention has raised the stakes in a decades-long effort to clean up Chesapeake Bay.

Amid great fanfare, the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council recently announced new, short-term interim goals for reductions in nutrient loads reaching the Bay due to human activity. The first deadline, 2011, sets specific nitrogen and phosphorus goals that call for significantly greater progress from the watershed states – Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. After 2011, new goals will be established every two years, and all measures needed to restore the Bay are expected to be in place by 2025.

Adding political weight to this announcement was an Executive Order by President Obama, issued the same day, which:

  • Adopted the goal of restoring the Bay as a national priority;
  • Directed the EPA to use its full authority under the Clean Water Act to compel the actions necessary to restore the Bay;
  • Authorized the creation of a Bay Federal Leadership Committee to coordinate federal action; and
  • Directed USDA working lands and land retirement programs to target priority watersheds, and focus on reducing nutrient and sediment loads to the Bay.

These are promising new strategies and tools. What remains to be seen is if there is sufficient political will to follow them through.

Implementing the Executive Order in the manner required to successfully restore the Bay will entail actions that politicians have avoided until now - either because they would be politically unpopular or because they would involve raising substantial new revenues from the public through taxes and fees.

The Chesapeake Bay Blue Ribbon Finance Panel (PDF) estimated in 2003 that cleaning up the Bay would cost $28 billion dollars, a figure that dwarfs existing and planned federal and state spending. This shortfall represents a serious impediment to the adoption of interim and accelerated goals, and to the increased emphasis on enforcement mandated by the President. Yet no mention of costs was made in Tuesday’s announcements. A second serious impediment to success is that some elements of the current tributary strategies for restoring the Bay are either impractical or prohibitively expensive.

On the positive side, the Executive Order embraces an adaptive management approach that will enable states to take incremental steps in the right direction. If done properly, this will result in available resources being directed to the most efficient and cost-effective strategies for improving the Bay’s health.

Based on WRI’s long track record of working on Bay clean-up strategies, here are some realistic, effective actions that states can take now as part of an adaptive management strategy.

  • Eliminate or modify unrealistic components of tributary strategies: Current urban stormwater strategies would require about $15 billion to implement yet would achieve relatively small nutrient load reductions. Cost-effectiveness could be dramatically improved by allowing local jurisdictions to meet their stormwater-related nutrient obligations by purchasing some nitrogen and phosphorus credits on the trading market. Existing septic strategies also suffer from unaffordable costs and small nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions, as well as being impractical to implement. In Maryland, for example, it would cost at least $4 billion to upgrade all of the state’s 440,000 septic systems under the state’s open-to-all grant program. The strategy could produce far greater nitrogen load reductions, much more cheaply, if it mainly targeted septic systems in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area (within 1,000 feet of the Bay shoreline).

  • Improve the cost-effectiveness of conservation funding: To maximize environmental return on investment, federal and state conservation programs that make payments to farmers and other landowners should be revised to target funding to critical watersheds and should incorporate a “pay for performance” approach. One example is to award conservation funding competitively, based on cost-per-pound of nutrient reduction.

  • Implement a Bay-wide nutrient trading program: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia have implemented in-state nutrient trading programs, or are in the process of doing so. These seek to reduce the cost of achieving nutrient loading goals and to accommodate growth in the face of tight nutrient caps. Broadening the nutrient trading market to the entire Bay watershed would increase the robustness and stability of the market, improve credit supply and demand dynamics, maximize competition, and reduce overall costs.

  • Find ways to remove nutrients already in the Bay and its tributaries: Proven methods, such as constructing wetlands or restoring tidal marshes, already exist. Additional innovations have been proposed but await compelling demonstration of their benefits. One such approach is oyster aquaculture, which has the potential to result in the removal of significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. Algal Turf Scrubbing (ATS) is another promising technology with the potential to remove large amounts of nutrients. Neither new nor speculative, it simply awaits a serious demonstration of its potential capabilities.

The public is out of patience with the Bay restoration effort. The President and the Governors have recognized this and promised to take the tough actions necessary to make real progress. Among the first actions taken should be a genuine commitment to cost-effectiveness and implementability.

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