If there is any hope for a Chesapeake Bay restoration, the amount of pollution flowing into it on a daily basis must be reduced. It's really that simple. Maryland and Virginia have made significant progress in that regard, but one state trails particularly badly — Pennsylvania.
The latest numbers produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tell the story in a nutshell. Under an EPA-enforced regional compact, six states and the District of Columbia are aiming to reduce the amount of one pollutant in particular, nitrogen, by 60 percent based on 2009 levels by the year 2017. At the current rate, the agency estimates, the watershed will achieve a bit less than half of that goal.
Pennsylvania is single handedly responsible for 79 percent of the shortfall, according to the EPA model. Seventy-nine percent! The notion that the current effort to meet the 2017 target could possibly be accomplished any time near the deadline now seems laughable. And that begs a question: What happens next?
The Keystone State has long been seen as the weakest link in the Chesapeake Bay Program, not because residents of the state are especially antagonistic toward their southern neighbors but more because water quality is simply not their highest priority. And why would it be? This is a state fraught with many other, seemingly more pressing political concerns and divisions.
The Susquehanna River is responsible for nearly half the freshwater flowing into the Chesapeake. Yet Pennsylvania residents have no direct stake in the welfare of so much that is downstream such as crabs, tidal flats, scenic waterways and bustling ports with all those jobs associated with tourism, seafood and other bay-related business.
The problem manifests itself most acutely in agriculture. Pennsylvania has an estimated 45,000 farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, many of them raising dairy and beef cattle as well as hogs. How many inspectors does the state employ to make sure those farms are meeting so-called "Best Management Practices" in the handling of fertilizer or the planting of cover crops or simply making sure nitrogen-rich animal waste is not flowing downstream? Bay advocates say just five, which means this handful of inspectors can evaluate every farm once every 170 years.
Farmers may be the primary offenders, but they aren't the only ones. Precious little has been done about stormwater management, either, and there are concerns about pollution coming out of sewage treatment plants located in the eastern half of the state as well.
Should Pennsylvania continue down this path, there are actions the EPA could take to penalize the state under the Clean Water Act and the regional blueprint for Chesapeake Bay restoration. The agency could start denying discharge permits for stormwater systems. It could require "offsets," meaning reductions in other categories such as sewage plants to make up for the lack of progress in agriculture. It could "redirect" EPA grants. It might even enforce federal standards to protect designated streams.
But that would be less than ideal. Advocates say Gov. Tom Wolfe, a Democrat, has shown greater interest in meeting Clean Water standards than his predecessors, but he only took office five months ago and needs time to make reforms. Threaten him with sanctions this year or next and the swing state may help elect a president who actively opposes the EPA cleanup or perhaps the EPA in general.
What might prove more effective would be to demonstrate to Pennsylvania residents the need to clean the Susquehanna watershed for their own benefit, let alone the benefit of those of us downstream. Just last month, a smallmouth bass with a cancerous tumor in its jaw was pulled out of the Susquehanna. The incident received national attention — and spotlighted the declining fishery and the underlying pollution that is responsible for it.
What Pennsylvania's shortcomings in reducing nitrogen (and sediment) should not do is cause Maryland or Virginia to curb pollution reductions of their own. It might be tempting to resent a neighbor who seems to be "getting away" with lax environmental enforcement, but that's a self-destructive line of thinking — just as the presence of air pollution from out-of-state power plants wafting into Maryland is no reason to abandon state standards on emissions. The goal must be to get Pennsylvania back on track in reducing pollution, not to scrap a still-promising regional approach to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.