OUR GOVERNMENT'S record has not engendered much trust when it comes to saving the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. Very few affordable, science-based solutions to pollution problems have been implemented, despite their availability. And time is running out.
Five years ago yesterday, state and federal leaders who served on the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council ratified the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement (C2K). The overarching promise of C2K is to improve water quality to rid the bay and its rivers of persistent dead zones by 2010.
If this promise is kept, the bay and its tributaries will no longer carry the sorry distinction of inclusion on the federal Clean Water Act's "dirty waters" list, and the court-ordered mandate to accomplish the necessary water-quality improvements by the 2010 deadline will be met.
C2K set specific goals and actions to restore the Chesapeake watershed, including:
By 2001, determine nitrogen and phosphorus pollution reduction goals for each major tributary.
By 2003, adopt in-stream standards that define the water quality necessary to support the bay's living resources.
Beginning with the Class of 2005, provide a meaningful outdoor educational experience for every student before graduation from high school.
By 2005, revise and implement fish management plans that recognize multispecies interactions and their impacts on the ecosystem.
Not one of these actions met its deadline. Only the first goal was reached, four years late. The price of missing deadlines? Scientists recently predicted that this summer could be one of the worst on record for water quality.
Not all of the news at the halfway mark to the 2010 deadline is bad. The goal for restoring forested buffers along streams - one of the most effective ways to prevent pollutant runoff - is ahead of schedule. More important, technology to stop pollution from sewage treatment plants is readily available. Fully improved sewage treatment will result in a reduction of millions of pounds of nitrogen pollution annually.
On June 13, after an 18-month delay, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's legal challenge that the agency must set specific, enforceable limits for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from sewage treatment and industrial plants. The policy reversal signals a new commitment by the EPA to clean up our waters faster.
Now is the time to act against other major sources of pollution, especially agricultural runoff. Numerous solutions are available to address the inherently "leaky" enterprise of modern farming. Agricultural conservation practices are extremely cost-effective, providing more nitrogen and phosphorus pollutant reductions than from any other source.
Farmers have demonstrated a willingness to use proven strategies. But they must be given fair and reasonable support. Every year, farmers who apply to install conservation practices are turned away because of a lack of money. More money for environmental improvement is an extremely wise investment of taxpayer dollars.
Our elected officials must act boldly and quickly to build upon some encouraging steps. If they do, there is a chance they will still be in time to keep their promise to save this outstanding national treasure.
William C. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.