Government officials involved in the multistate Chesapeake Bay cleanup pledged Monday to broaden and accelerate the long-running effort, including a vow to address the impacts of climate change on the ailing estuary.
Governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware signed a new bay restoration agreement in Annapolis, which for the first time formally encompasses "upstream" states with smaller slices of the 64,000-square-mile watershed, including New York and West Virginia. Other signatories were Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray, and Ronald E. Miller, a Pennsylvania state representative and chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state lawmakers.
The pact, the fourth signed in 31 years, contains fewer specifics than the last one in 2000, which had more than 100 commitments. But officials said the new agreement's 10 broad goals and 29 "outcomes" focus restoration efforts on the bay's core problems with nutrient and sediment pollution, while also tackling emerging concerns, such as new toxic contaminants. It goes beyond the mandatory bay "pollution diet" imposed on states by the EPA, pledging to work toward restoring crabs, fish and oysters, improving public access to the water and educating students about the environment.
Maryland and other bay states have been working since 1983 to curtail nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Chesapeake, which cause algae blooms and "dead zones" where fish struggle to survive. While one water-fouling nutrient, nitrogen, has been significantly reduced, progress has stalled in the past decade across much of the six-state watershed in reducing levels of another, phosphorus.
"We need to know what we need to do to get a better result" on phosphorus, said Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the bay leadership council.
Maryland officials said that while sewage plant upgrades have reduced phosphorus pollution in some areas, more needs to be done to curb phosphorus runoff from urban areas and especially from farm fields in rural areas where animal manure has long been used to fertilize crops.
Environmentalists gave the new agreement mixed reviews. Some praised it for dealing with climate change and toxic pollution after those went unmentioned in early drafts. Claudia Friedetzky of the Maryland Sierra Club called climate change "the great unifier," saying it could affect all other efforts to restore the bay's water quality and fisheries.
But others complained the agreement wasn't specific enough and noted that it concludes by saying participation is voluntary and depends on funding being available.
"We need a bay agreement with enforceable terms, not one that provides loopholes," said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, a coalition of 19 watershed watchdog groups.
O'Malley said that despite the opt-out language in the new agreement, there was "broad consensus" among the states to demonstrate their commitment by producing detailed plans in the next 90 days for achieving the pact's goals and outcomes.
O'Malley, who is in his final year in office, noted that under his administration the state had upgraded many sewage plants, required storm drain retrofits and limited development with polluting septic systems. He said the latest agreement culminates a shift from setting unrealistically ambitious long-term goals in prior years to a more gradual approach, with two-year "milestones." That way, he said, the public is better able to monitor states' cleanup progress.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker said O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat elected last fall, had both pushed to strengthen the restoration agreement.
But Baker said the most important thing all the leaders had done Monday was pledge to produce detailed plans within three months for achieving the new pact's goals.
"Transparency and accountability are really critical" to whether this new restoration plan succeeds, he added.
With governors of West Virginia and New York absent from the gathering, a formal commitment to do follow-up plans was put off until later, according to Jeff Corbin, bay adviser to the EPA administrator.