Some good leadership on restoring bay, and a need to do a good deal more


What a difference a decade and a half makes. In 1977, at the first Maryland-Virginia conference on the Chesapeake Bay, a top environmental official concluded this about pollution washing into the estuary from farms and developments:

"There is more alarm than necessary. . . . [It] can be controlled with just good housekeeping, old-fashioned general sanitation."

This week at the latest bay summit conference, the governors of Maryland and Virginia were flanked by the EPA administrator, the mayor of Washington and the governor of Pennsylvania, whose state has millions of acres of farmland draining pollutants to the Chesapeake.

We now recognize that saving the bay must involve virtually every jurisdiction affecting land, water and air across a drainage basin stretching nearly from Vermont to North Carolina.

And in contrast to 1977, this is what the leaders this week concluded about the threat of pollutants washed by rainfall into VTC the bay from farms and development:

"It is one of the biggest challenges we face. . . . Achieving our cleanup goals challenges the limits of current . . . control technologies."

The occasion for Wednesday's meeting at the U.S. Naval Academy was to amend for the first time in five years the historic bay restoration agreement of 1987, based on advances in scientific understand ing and on progress to date.

The amendments, everyone agreed, contained real advances. Environmentalists and the states' Citizen Advisory Committee said it was not enough. We can only move so far so fast, government officials countered. To put the contretemps in perspective, this column today offers a report card grading what went down Wednesday -- also, what didn't. But first a few observations on some intangibles, as important to a healthy bay as written amendments.

"Maybe the biggest news today is that they all showed up," said a woman with long experience in the bay restoration, as we listened to the governors, the mayor and EPA Administrator William K. Reilly put their best spin on the bay's future.

That wasn't as cynical as it sounded, she added. I understood what she meant. The personal commitments of our top leaders to the bay have been vital to any progress realized in the last decade.

Summit conferences like Wednesday's are not only critical to mobilizing public support; they can be just as important to building a spirit and a synergy among the leaders themselves. Even allowing for the staged hoopla and love-feasting, that spirit Wednesday seemed as lively and as genuine as I've seen at a bay conference (and I've been to 15 years' worth).

There was Gov. William Donald Schaefer, once-foreign phrases like "nutrient re-evaluation" and "integrated pest management" rolling off his tongue; talking animatedly about tours through dead-chicken composters and electroplating plants -- both issues in bay pollution.

I recall vividly interviewing Schaefer about the bay when he was mayor of Baltimore, running for governor. He had the demeanor of a cornered animal, dragooned by advisers to talk about something that was "important," but as unfamiliar to him as the dark side of the moon.

Wednesday, he was a man at ease, in control of an issue that he sees as a real part of his legacy. Of all the leaders there, the city boy from Baltimore has exerted the most leadership on the Chesapeake. It was no surprise he was re-elected as the group's chairman.

And Sharon Pratt Kelly, the D.C. mayor, whose constituents must worry more about survival than environmental quality, was enthusiastic as any Eastern Shoreman about her home bay tributary, the junky Anacostia River, and programs to restore it.

So it was that the leaders came and renewed their faith in the bay and in one another, and it was good. Was it good enough? Here, some grades on amendments they adopted:

* Produce specific cleanup strategies by 1993 for each of the major rivers feeding the bay.

An important advance. The focus up to now on the main bay, while good, can ignore more local pollution problems. The refocus is most vital in Virginia. Its rivers are close enough to the ocean that their pollution does not affect the main bay like in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Grade: Give Maryland and Pennsylvania each an A, and give Gov. L. Douglas Wilder an A+ for stating forcefully that Virginia will not weasel on prior cleanup commitments, even if it cannot be proven they are needed to clean up the main bay. "For the rivers alone we should do it," he said.

* Make submerged grasses growing in the bay and its rivers indicators of progress as the bay cleanup progresses.

This is a great move. Unlike other goals, such as reducing chemical pollutants in the bay, you can see the grasses, which grow along the bay's shallow fringes. They are critical fish and waterfowl habitat, and they put needed oxygen in the water and clear sediment from it.

The grasses are quite sensitive to pollution. The bay went from having hundreds of thousands of acres to having tens of thousands in recent decades. Their comeback, which can be documented by aerial photos -- and enjoyed by people who fish and crab and hunt or watch waterfowl -- will show how well we are meeting less visible pollution goals.

Grade: B-. Could have been an A, but no commitment to firm goals on acreage to restore or on timetables. The minus is for taking full credit for recent upticks in grass acreage without admitting that at least part of the comeback is weather-related (dry weather equals less polluted runoff).

* Reaffirmed 1987 goals of reducing pollution from sewage and land-based runoff by 40 percent by the year 2000, and capping it at those levels even as population and farm animal concentrations continue rising.

Grade: Mark them "present." News only if they hadn't stayed the course on this tough and laudable goal.

* Reduce pollution to the bay through the new Clean Air Act.

Grade: C. Congress and President Bush get credit for the act. And again, no commitment to timetables or pollution reductions beyond law's basic requirements from bay states.

A first, however, acknowledging the significant impact of air pollutants from cars and power plants.

Next are what I consider the most pressing areas of bay cleanup where specific amendments could have been offered, but weren't.

* Reducing pollution washing off farm fields, livestock and poultry operations.

Agriculture covers more than a quarter of the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed. It is one of the largest obstacles to cleaning up the bay. To date, voluntary programs in all three states have made marginal progress.

Grade: D to Maryland and Virginia. Voluntary programs are getting better, but won't cut it. Give Pennsylvania a B. Gov. Robert P. Casey has worked hard for a mandatory program there. The bill came close to passing this year, and is not dead yet.

* Develop fisheries conservation plans for bay species.

Grade: D. Both Maryland and Virginia should be doing more right now to protect shad, crabs and oysters. They don't fail this one because they are doing some good science to understand all these critters better.

Finally, a couple major areas where progress lags, though meaningful amendments may have been tough to produce for Wednesday's summit:

* Growth management.

Everyone knows that unless rampant unplanned development is controlled, we will not in the long run meet the ambitious goals of 40 percent pollution reduction.

Grades: an A to Schaefer for taking the lead in 1991 for nation's most ambitious growth bill; also a D for settling in 1992 for a wimp version of same bill. To Wilder, a failing grade so far, though Virginia is working on legislation. Casey isn't even marked present on this one.

* Toxic chemicals.

None of the leaders, including EPA, wants to say reducing toxics in the bay is on the back burner, but it is, and I bet it will continue to be. The science to back it up is relatively weak, and too many other problems loom larger and promise more hope of resolution.

Grade? It's barely on the list of required courses.

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