Baltimore Sun

Bay checklist for candidates

HOW WELL will Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the leading candidates for governor, do at protecting the Chesapeake Bay?

Here's a yardstick to help judge them.

By the mid-1980s, when programs to restore the bay's health got seriously under way, about 360 million pounds of nitrogen, the bay's biggest pollutant, entered the estuary annually.

That's 10 million pounds for each inch on a yardstick. Pollution had risen by the 1980s to 36 inches, top of the stick, from about 5 inches (50 million pounds) when forests still covered most of the watershed 350 years ago.

Think of it as going from ankle-deep to derriere-deep in nitrogen in the past few centuries.

We'll never see ankle-deep again, but there's scientific consensus that unless we cut nitrogen to about shin-deep - 15 to 19 inches on our yardstick - we're not going to see a healthy bay.

With a lot of effort since the 1980s, we have inched down to about 300 million pounds, or 30 inches on our bay-health yardstick. But to meet bay restoration goals, we've got to eliminate, at minimum, twice that much nitrogen during this decade.

Fortunately for the bay, and for judging the candidates' environmental worthiness, we have a good idea of where the nitrogen's coming from and what is required to reduce it.

Any campaign that puts a priority on restoring the bay should have sound responses to all the following:

  • Sewage: The largest pollution reductions we're likely to get in the next decade will come from applying the best technology for removing nitrogen and other pollutants at all big municipal wastewater treatment plants. It will take serious money (see below) and some head-knocking with local officials, but it is by far the most straightforward way to big gains.

    The other way we treat human wastes, in backyard septic tanks, is an antiquated, polluting method that cries out for a statewide program to require using cleaner existing alternatives.

  • Agriculture: Mostly voluntary approaches have made only a modest dent in pollution from farms and animal industries that are now the largest sources of the bay's nitrogen. Maryland is moving tentatively toward a more regulatory approach, but farmers can't bear the costs alone.

    Proven programs exist to help farmers plant particular crops and edge-of-field buffers to intercept fertilizer runoff before it pollutes the bay. But these are operating well below their potential. Another program, more experimental, would insure farmers against losses in yields if they agreed to apply less fertilizer.

    Making more progress with ag pollution is probably the biggest task of this decade.

  • Air: The airborne fallout from cars and power plants is a huge source of the bay's nitrogen pollution. Although a lot of air quality depends on federal policy, a governor faces crucial choices.

    One is whether to aggressively shift transportation programs away from highways toward less-polluting mass transit. Another is whether to support President Bush's proposals to change the federal Clean Air Act, which environmentalists think could mean dirtier air for the bay.

  • Land use: Every acre of forest and wetlands is an acre that lets little nitrogen escape to waterways, while every acre paved for development increases such pollution. Maryland has committed, with Pennsylvania and Virginia, to preserve another 1.1 million acres of open space in the bay watershed they share. That will take stepped-up efforts to purchase open space or protect it with conservation easements.

    A companion commitment is to drastically reduce sprawl development by expanding programs such as Smart Growth, which uses state spending and policies to steer growth from the countryside into existing towns and cities.

  • Oysters: As surely as forests remove nitrogen before it runs bayward, oysters filter the excess algae grown in the water by too much nitrogen. It is essential to support the current state goal of increasing oysters tenfold.

  • Money: All of the above will take extra money - $12 billion or more throughout the three states of the bay watershed. That's about 25 cents per person per day for the next decade. A good deal of it might be garnered from federal sources.

    The key thing to remember is that nothing less than aggressive leadership by Maryland in all the areas I've mentioned - and some I haven't - will have a prayer of restoring the bay. Historically, Pennsylvania and Virginia have waited to follow Maryland's lead.

    The goal of emerging from this decade shin-deep in pollution instead of nearly derriere-deep means doing twice as much in eight years as we've done in the past 15.

    And before we start, we must offset all the pollution to come, from the million people who will move into the watershed by 2010.

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