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Chesapeake price tag


WHAT IS THE Chesapeake Bay worth?

Calculations of its value as seafood source, commercial waterway and recreational mecca can range up to $100 billion.

It's impossible to put a value on sunsets from one's sailboat, anchored in a forested cove, with night sounds piping up from nearby wetlands.

And who can price the thrill of seeing one's kid reel in a big striped bass, or dip a blue crab from a pier?

One price tag we are close to placing on the bay comes not a moment too soon. That's the cost to restore it to health.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently calculated it will take $8.5 billion to meet 2010 water quality and open space goals agreed to last year by Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the federal government.

The foundation offered it as a first-cut estimate, and it's probably on the low side (more on that later). It's serious money, $850 million a year, largely unbudgeted.

It's also about 15 cents a day, per person, if spread throughout the 15 or so million residents who live in the bay's watershed and contribute to its pollution.

Other ways of putting in perspective the 10-year, $8.5 billion price of restoring the Chesapeake:

It's roughly equal to the $7.8 billion that Florida and the federal government are spending to restore the Everglades and to an $8.6 billion restoration for California's bays.

It's also about a tenth of what the three principal watershed states (Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania) spend each decade on transportation.

So, what is it that requires $8.5 billion beyond the hundreds of millions per year spent on environment in the bay's watershed?

Most straightforward is an estimated $1.8 billion to meet the 2010 goal of preserving from development another 1.1 million acres of farms, forests and wetlands.

Currently funded programs would get us halfway to the goal, which aims to preserve 20 percent of the bay's 41 million-acre watershed.

The rest of the money, about $6.7 billion, is aimed at reducing nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage and land runoff, which clogs the bay with algae, exhausting oxygen in its waters and killing its underwater grasses.

To grasp the magnitude of this task, take a yardstick, and assume each inch represents 10 million pounds of nitrogen. The full yard, 36 inches, was the 360 million pounds entering the bay in 1985.

Between then and now, we made it to about 30 inches, 300 million pounds. The most optimistic cleanup assumptions, based on EPA's latest science, say we've got to get down to 19 inches on our yardstick -- nearly double in the next decade the progress we made in the past decade and a half.

The foundation's price tag is based on that level, which is why it's probably low. It's possible we'll need to reduce nitrogen closer to 13 inches (130 million pounds) to see real recovery of bay waters and underwater grasses.(Just for reference, mark your yardstick at five inches -- that was the bay's nitrogen load when Captain John Smith arrived in 1607.)

The bulk of these fierce pollution reductions, and the majority of the $6.7 billion needed for water quality, would come from a drastic re-greening of agricultural lands.

About a million acres of forest, an area almost three times the size of Baltimore County, needs to be planted along 80,000 miles of streams to filter land runoff.

Another 800,000 acres of cropland would need to be taken out of production under the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

Millions more cropland acres would need to be sown each winter in "cover crops" that suck excess nitrogen from the soil before it can run into waterways.

Of the rest of the money, about $1.5 billion would be allocated for sewage treatment, and half a billion to restore oysters and wetlands (both effective at cleansing pollutants from bay waters).

Where will the money come from? It will take every player at every level of government stepping up to the plate.

Virginia, for example, spends pitifully little at the state level to preserve land, and many of Maryland's local governments have a "let the state buy it" attitude.

Pennsylvania has virtually ignored improving sewage plants in the bay watershed in the past decade, and none of the states has done enough to help farmers pay for cover crops.

A key will be building a united front for bay restoration as a national interest, as the Everglades are. A number of funding opportunities are available at the federal level, ranging from new tax and clean water legislation to the 2002 farm bill and the 2003 transportation bill.

The foundation's cleanup scenario will be debated and reshaped. But they have set a standard of accountability missing from bay programs until now.

What's the bay worth? If we don't put our money where our goals are, we'll know it wasn't worth 15 cents a day from each of us.

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