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Scientists question bay cleanup tracking

The long-running Chesapeake Bay cleanup remains plagued by uneven efforts to track and verify pollution reductions, particularly from farmland, according to an independent review.
In a report released today, a nine-member panel of scientists with the National Research Council finds that while Maryland and other states have boosted their pollution control efforts, they’re not gathering enough information to tell how much progress they're making, especially those aimed at reducing farm runoff, a major source of the degraded estuary’s water quality woes.

The review comes as Maryland and other states grapple with the requirements of a new “pollution diet” imposed by EPA requiring substantial reductions in nutrient and sediment pollution throughout the six-state bay watershed. The American Farm Bureau has filed suit challenging the EPA plan, and local and state officials in parts of the region have complained about its costs and scientific basis.

An independent scientific assessment of the bay cleanup effort was requested two years ago after the states and EPA missed another in a series of deadlines, and a federal audit faulted the largely voluntary restoration campaign for exaggerating claims of success.  At that time, the region’s governors and federal officials vowed to accelerate their efforts and hold themselves more accountable, setting cleanup “milestones” to be reached every two years.

The scientific panel said that while setting short-term goals for the restoration should help, progress is still in doubt, in part because of inconsistent tracking and verifying of farm pollution measures. States have not accounted for controls put in place without government financial assistance, the report notes, but they also have not determined how lasting or effective have been many of the “best management practices” farmers have adopted.

As a result, the researchers said they were unable to determine the reliability or accuracy of runoff reductions reported by the states.

More generally, the report says, nearly all the states lack sufficient information to properly evaluate their progress in reducing nutrient and sediment pollution, the report says.  Their ability to make mid-course corrections is hampered as a result, the scientists warn, and policy makers and the public are likely to get an incomplete and possibly inaccurate sense of how much progress is being made to restore the bay.

The review warns that after centuries of pollution it may take years, if not decades, for water quality to improve significantly, and it urges officials to be more upfront with the public about the probability of delayed results, or risk loss of public and political support for the cleanup.

The report urges creation of a new laboratory to improve the computer modeling of the bay on which EPA’s controversial pollution diet was based.   It also recommends trying new approaches to managing animal manure on farms, curbing lawn fertilizer use and further reducing air pollution that contributes to the bay’s water problems.  

It even calls for states and the federal government to promote greater individual responsibility for reducing bay pollution, including encouraging people to reduce their consumption of meat.

Ann P. Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, representing lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, said the independent review confirms for her that the states are on the right track in setting a series of two-year interim goals to keep them working toward an ultimate cleanup deadline in 2025.  She also noted that the scientists had warned the bay's restoration may never be realized unless cleanup efforts are adjusted to take into account the region's population growth, development patterns and the effects of climate change.

To read the full report, click <a xhref="" target=new>here. </a>

Baltimore Sun file photo

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