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Chesapeake Bay gets a flexible diet

Spend our money more wisely.

I think that's what the average person wants from government. We're not extremists. We don't want government spending indiscriminately on programs that don't work, nor do we want government indiscriminately slashing spending in a way that only makes our problems worse. We want leaders who are good with money — our money.

That's why we're so disappointed with some officials (perhaps the minority) who are condemning a plan to put the Chesapeake Bay region under a "pollution diet." All six bay states have agreed that a further reduction in pollution entering creeks, rivers and the bay is important, and they have laid out plans to meet the diet. It is now up to local governments to decide how they can help. If local leaders choose wisely from a menu of diet options, rather than rejecting the diet completely, they can save us significant amounts of money.

Here's one example. Currently, taxpayers subsidize sprawl development — often large houses on former farmland far away from shops, schools and other services. We pay for the public roads and other public facilities that have to be improved to accommodate that remote, rural development. Maryland could save $15 billion over the next 25 years if it developed more wisely and encouraged construction closer to towns, according to the University of Maryland National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.

Smart growth is on the diet menu.

Here's another example. Local governments and homeowners still are adding up costs from recent floods. Big storms will always cause damage, but we've made flooding worse by paving the landscape. We can help reduce it by improving the system of pipes, gutters and retention ponds that drain water after a storm. That will mean reduced property damage from flooding, reduced cleanup costs from sewer overflows and lowered costs for drinking water.

Homeowners, for instance, could save between $6,700 and $9,700 per acre in property damage from a significant (but increasingly more frequent) storm if modest efforts were funded to slow runoff upstream, according to a study of a Chicago suburb by the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management.

Success stories abound of cities and counties around the Chesapeake Bay region spending money wisely to reduce and treat runoff to reap ecological and economic benefits. Virginia Beach reduced the amount of contaminated runoff into Lynnhaven Bay, Broad Bay and Linkhorn Bay. Water quality improved so much that Virginia authorities lifted a ban on harvesting shellfish in more than 1,400 acres.

In Western Maryland, federal, state and local governments, along with community volunteers, teamed up to stabilize and protect George's Creek in from erosion and agricultural runoff. The work eased downstream flooding, stopped 2,200 tons of sediment a year from entering the stream, and brought back central stonerollers, rosyside dace and other fish species to the creek.

Stormwater management is on the diet menu.

Without a doubt, there will be short-term costs in every county to meet the diet. The heart-healthy section of a menu is not free. But various local governments have found creative ways to get the job done at reasonable cost. In the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, for instance, officials originally came up with scary estimates for their stormwater management costs, but they cut that estimate by 60 percent using cost-effective strategies such as street sweeping, restored wetlands and special landscaping. Every locality is different, but savings can be discovered everywhere.

The important thing to remember is that local elected officials will make their own choices about how to meet the pollution diet. No one will dictate their strategies. They can, and should, select cost-effective measures that meet their community's needs.

We've made significant progress in improving the water quality in our rivers and streams. We're more than halfway to the goals we set 20 years ago for a restored Chesapeake Bay. But dead zones, sewage overflows and beach closings that dominated the headlines this summer demonstrate that we have a long way to go. The pollution diet is a solid plan to finish this important work.

Obviously, nobody should be told they have to diet in their personal life. But government has the responsibility to protect our health and welfare. State and county governments throughout the region have agreed that safeguarding our water is a critical government function. A commitment to clean water will produce jobs in the seafood, tourism, construction and recreational fishing industries. Most importantly, it will pay off in healthy families.

Kim Coble is the Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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