The Chesapeake Bay may be a beloved resource, but we have cruelly mistreated the object of our affections. After many years of knowing how urgently we must protect it, the bay is still far from the clean, vital, vibrant watershed it should be. Its poor health reflects a failure by all of us over decades. By relying on a "voluntary" approach in our cleanup efforts, we are nowhere near the goals that were set to restore this national treasure, and nowhere near a healthy bay.

It is time for people to demand that their elected representatives act to do something about a dying bay and a region fraught with polluted and degraded streams and rivers. U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Elijah Cummings recently introduced comprehensive legislation that provides the best chance in a generation to save the Chesapeake Bay. Every resident of this region - in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia - who cares about clean water should contact their elected federal officials in both the House and the Senate and urge them to cosponsor and support these bills (S. 1816 & H.R. 3852).

Senator Cardin and Congressman Cummings' legislation includes a substantial funding increase to the states, local governments, farmers and others, which is critical for implementing the requirements of this bill. Many farmers have been excellent stewards of their land and have implemented various conservation practices on their farms. State and local governments and taxpayers have made considerable investments in upgrading sewage treatment plants, and many homeowners have discovered the low-maintenance pleasures of low-impact development practices on their property. Yet, despite years of these theoretically excellent approaches, the bay is still barely hanging on.

Existing mechanisms largely rely on cooperation and consensus. This feel-good approach often results in the adoption of standards based on the lowest common denominator among competing entities. The health of the bay suffers as a result.

What makes this current effort different is that the deadlines and goals are real - there are consequences and remedies for failure. Parts of the bill are modeled on the highly successful Clean Air Act, which has done an extraordinary job of reducing airborne pollutants. The Chesapeake Bay should be the next big success for this proven, effective tactic.

The only disappointment is that a draft of the Senate bill had a cleanup deadline of 2020, but the deadline was extended to 2025 when the bill was introduced. Haven't we already waited long enough? This deadline must be pulled back to the original goal of 2020.

I've been to Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro - a city renowned for its lush forests, gorgeous beaches and natural beauty. But due to rampant pollution and deforestation, the bay is dead. No one can swim there. No one can fish there. The ecosystem, once rich and lively, has crashed. We do not have to be like Rio de Janeiro, which has labored unsuccessfully for many years to return the Guanabara Bay to the beautiful, exotic place it once was.

This new legislation presents an amazing opportunity. It is an opportunity to restore the Chesapeake Bay to the natural, recreational and economic resource it is meant to be, cherished in its continued life rather than mourned for its death.

Parris N. Glendening, who served as governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003, is president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute. His e-mail is pglendening@smart growthamerica.org.

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