Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Stalls for Lack of Funding

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, November 18, 2005 (ENS) – The federal program charged with directing the massive effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay does not have a "comprehensive, coordinated implementation strategy" for restoring the nation’s largest estuary, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report, released Tuesday, found bureaucratic failings with the Chesapeake Bay Program are "undermining the success of the restoration effort and potentially eroding public confidence and continued support."

The harsh criticism comes on the heels of further evidence that the health of the Chesapeake Bay continues to decline, despite more than three decades of restoration efforts.

The Chesapeake Bay Program is the engine behind the federal and state effort to clean up the Bay, which suffers from massive, unnatural influxes of nitrogen and phosphorous – largely from sewage wastewater, agricultural and urban runoff, and air pollution.


Runoff that originates in Baltimore, Maryland flows into the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo courtesy NASA)
Formed in 1983 by Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the program is responsible for measuring the restoration effort and providing information to guide management and policy decisions.

It now includes Delaware, New York and West Virginia, as well as 12 federal agencies and a commission representing the watershed states’ legislatures.

In 2000, these parties agreed to a detailed plan – known as Chesapeake 2000 - to cut the Bay’s pollution in half by 2010.

The program lacks integrated approaches to measure success and has presented a murky picture of the cleanup effort that overstates progress, according to the GAO.

The report concludes that the program currently "cannot effectively present a clear and credible picture of what the restoration effort has achieved, what strategies will further Chesapeake 2000’s restoration goals, and how limited resources should be channeled to develop and implement the most effective strategies."

It calls on the partners in the program to develop a coordinated implementation strategy and ensure limited resources are used to develop and implement "effective and realistic work plans."

The report touches on what many believe is the major reason the restoration effort is failing - lack of funding.


Cities contribute to the Bay about twice the nitrogen and phosphorus load per acre as agriculture. (Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program)
Some $6 billion has been spent since 1995, according to the GAO, but "estimates for the amount of funding needed to restore the bay far surpass these figures."

The report cites a 2003 Chesapeake Bay Commission report program that estimated the restoration effort faces a $13 billion funding gap to achieve the goals outlined in Chesapeake 2000.

The GAO report was requested by U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats, and Virginia Republican John Warner.

The trio sent a letter on Tuesday to President Bush urging him to heed the warnings in the GAO report and to set up a task force to review the federal effort to clean up the Bay.


Fishing boat south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near the Severn River.(Photo by Mary Hollinger courtesy NOAA)
"The federal bureaucracy charged with protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay is falling down on the job," said Senator Mikulski. "The President must take responsibility to ensure stewardship of our Bay and taxpayer dollars."

"The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure, and the Federal effort to restore the Bay – The Chesapeake Bay Program – should be the Nation’s gold standard for environmental restoration," the senators wrote in their letter to the President.

The GAO report comes in the wake of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) annual report card that again warns the Bay is an ecosystem in peril.

"Today, more than halfway to the 2010 target date, instead of seeing significantly improved water quality we have a Bay that is dangerously out of balance and in critical condition," said William Baker, president of the conservation group.

The CBF report, released Monday, grades the health of the Bay a "D," with a health index rating of 27 - a long way from the organization’s goal of reaching 40 by 2010.

The benchmark of 100 reflects the Chesapeake as described in the early 1600s, when clean water revealed meadows of underwater grasses, vast oyster reefs and abundant fish.

The goal of 40 is roughly in line with the benchmarks set out by Chesapeake 2000.

The report notes that this year’s health index of 27 is unchanged for the third year in a row and has declined since 2000, when regional leaders reaffirmed support for cleaning up the Bay.

"The pace of improvement is glacial," the report said, "… and has stalled."

The foundation finds that thousands of miles of rivers and streams in the Bay’s watershed are still impaired by pollution, in particular nitrogen and phosphorous.

These pollutants feed massive algae blooms that kill fish and Bay grasses, which provide vital habitat for the Bay’s famous blue crabs.


A great blue heron in a Chesapeake Bay tidal pond near the mouth of the Patuxent River, Maryland (Photo by Mary Hollinger courtesy NOAA)
Robbing the water of oxygen, these algae blooms can form massive dead zones – this year a dead zone covered 40 percent of the volume of the Chesapeake.

"With thousands of miles of rivers and streams still impaired by pollution, with a near record summer 'dead zone,' and with fish consumption advisories throughout the watershed the stagnant state of the Bay in critical condition should surprise no one. But it is a booming call to action for both the states and the federal government," the foundation said.

At the halfway point to the target restoration date of 2010, there should be real improvements in water quality, not a Bay on the brink and poisoned rivers and streams, the foundation says.

Despite the gloomy news, the foundation says the fate of the Bay has not been sealed.

"Science has determined that successful, large-scale restoration of the Bay and its rivers is possible, but only if plans are funded, implemented and enforced," Baker said. "Our elected officials must act boldly, and they must act now. Band-aids will not stop the bleeding."