There's a popular saying in the halls of the State House in Annapolis: "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." It's used most often to describe government's classic conundrum — as laudable as a goal might be, people would rather not sacrifice to attain it.
That could well describe the flotilla of local government leaders who continue to protest bitterly over the projected cost of a Chesapeake Bay cleanup and Gov. Martin O'Malley's PlanMaryland curbs on taxpayer-supported sprawl. The cleanup plan has them not only worried about the possible billions of dollars involved but also attacking the basic science and assumptions behind the multistate bay restoration effort led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
And it's not just the rural counties that are fighting the EPA's "pollution diet" and steps the O'Malley administration is taking to help Maryland meet its long-term targets — including the anti-sprawl regulations and proposed restrictions on residential septic systems. Baltimore City and some suburban counties have expressed concerns, too, as plans call for major new investments to curb storm water runoff and other sources of pollution.
Last month, Gov. Martin O'Malley took a step toward appeasing those critics when he let it be known that he has changed the timetable for state action. Instead of meeting 2025 targets by 2020 (five years ahead of schedule), he will follow the original timetable for reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment by 15 percent to 25 percent.
That is a reasonable accommodation, particularly given that other states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed are experiencing similar challenges in meeting pollution diet goals. But it should not lead local government officials to believe they can postpone the difficult decisions they face — instead, they should use the time to gradually ramp up their efforts.
That doesn't appear to be what's happening. Instead, a lot of local governments are investing in lobbyists for the upcoming General Assembly session and looking for ways to sidestep these obligations altogether. They've attacked the computer models and the regulatory process — anything to delay or weaken the anti-pollution targets.
Some counties did not even bother to submit cleanup plans. Carroll County handed in a report that described all the pollution-fighting measures county government has taken in the past but did not list a single additional step the county would be willing to take to meet EPA targets. State officials were left to recommend actions instead.
And while it's reasonable to question the specifics of any proposed regulation or plan, it's quite another to refuse to take any action whatsoever. That the bay has suffered from an excess of nutrients is unarguable. That the pollution is the result of human activities is equally uncontested. So why would anyone believe that business as usual will produce cleaner water or restore the damaged habitat of fish, crabs and oysters?
Certainly, the costs involved are daunting, particularly as seen through the prism of several years of difficult government cost-cutting. Voters are seldom happy to hear about new taxes or fees. People are more comfortable with the notion that pollution is something someone else has caused, not them.
But as opinion polls have demonstrated over and over again, Maryland residents are willing to pay a bit more in taxes to state and local government if the result is a cleaner Chesapeake Bay. The bay means that much to them, and people instinctively understand that some sacrifice is required. They just don't want to see their efforts wasted or big polluters not held accountable.
Eventually, local governments can be forced to take action. That's what the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment had to do to get Baltimore to upgrade its wastewater system — and keep tens of millions of gallons of sewage out of local waterways. But going through the courts inevitably costs time and money that could be spent on the cleanup.
Better for voters to let their feelings be known and tell their elected leaders they expect their town, county or city to do its share. No county executive, city council member or the like will stand up and advocate for dirty water. But when they refuse to take action to improve the bay's health, that's essentially what they are doing.