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EPA Drafts Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Strategy

Monday, the Federal government announced the outlines of a new effort to help restore the seafood and wildlife in the nation's largest estuary: the Chesapeake Bay.

The plan injects the federal government into an issue that was largely left up to the states that surround the bay, such as Maryland and Virginia. And it targets the root causes of the trouble: runoff.

Healing The Bay

The bay is being overwhelmed with nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments from agriculture runoff as well as from the 17 million people who live in the bay's watershed.

One of the biggest victims of this has been the bay's once-thriving oysters. Peyton Robertson from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said restoring the oysters is key to the new bay recovery effort.

"We want to coordinate with Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries commission, to recover historical oyster bars and establish self-sustaining oyster-reef sanctuaries and 20 key tributaries throughout the bay, by the year 2020," Robertson said Monday in a telephone news briefing.

Reducing Runoff

Ultimately, the states and federal government will need to figure out how to reduce runoff into the bay. That means paying more attention to farms, which are the single biggest sources of nutrient-laden water.

But better farm practices alone won't do the job. In fact, EPA official Chuck Fox says, the impact from agricultural runoff is not as bad as it once was.

"This is contrary to urban and suburban runoff loads, which are in fact increasing in the Chesapeake Bay watershed," Fox said.

So an effective strategy means getting states and local governments to pay more attention to new or rebuilt subdivisions and other development.

Federal Involvement

Until now, most of the bay's restoration plans have been largely voluntary — loosely coordinated by Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and the city of Washington D.C., which are all in the bay's watershed.

The new plan, ordered this spring by President Obama, will give the federal government a much bigger role. Some in the region have worried this could amount to a federal takeover of the effort.

"I would respectfully disagree with that characterization completely," Fox said. "It is our view that this is a new era of federal leadership, but it is also our view that we have to do this in close partnership with state and local governments, as well as those in the private sector."

States are expected to come up with new regulations and measures to heal the bay, but if those fall short, the federal government will step in with new rules.

This plan, still in draft form, is a big step from the volunteer efforts of the past two decades. And Bill Dennison at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science says it's a welcome one, saying these are "exciting times" for the bay.

"It's kind of a super-sized restoration program," Dennison said. "And I think it represents an opportunity to take the best-studied bay in the world into the best-managed bay in the world."

Manageable Goals

One feature of the plan is that the states and federal government will review their progress every two years, and not simply wait until the restoration deadline of 2025 draws near.

"We have defined goals and measurable progress and realistic time fames," Dennison said. "We're not talking about what we're going to do in five or 10 years, outside the political life cycle of any particular politician, but we're talking about what we can do in a couple of years."

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been the region's leading advocate for restoring the bay. Roy Hoagland at the foundation says the newly unveiled plan neatly lays out all the things that need to be done, but he's not entirely happy.

"What was disappointing about this federal strategy is the lack of specificity," Hoagland said in an interview. "For example, it talks about developing new regulations for managing urban and suburban storm water. It doesn't have any details about what better management might or might not be."

Those all-important details still need to be worked out.

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