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Could 2022 prove a turning point for the Chesapeake Bay? | COMMENTARY

In this Nov. 19, 2019 file photo, watermen dredge for oysters on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Maryland. Budget surpluses in watershed states are raising hopes of greater government investment in pollution-reducing programs that could boost water quality. (AP Photo/Brian Witte).
In this Nov. 19, 2019 file photo, watermen dredge for oysters on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Maryland. Budget surpluses in watershed states are raising hopes of greater government investment in pollution-reducing programs that could boost water quality. (AP Photo/Brian Witte). (Brian Witte/AP)

On the surface, the future of the Chesapeake Bay appears about as murky and dark as deep water. The latest report released last week by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation observes that it’s unlikely that pollution limits agreed to by watershed states and supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are going to be met by a 2025 deadline. And it’s not like this is a shock. Various indicators from the CBF’s annual report card on the Chesapeake’s health (a “C” last year for tributaries, a ho-hum “B-minus” for the watershed overall) to the size and staying power of the “dead zone,” the oxygen-deprived area that forms from excess algae growth (it was both bigger and longer lasting in 2021 than the year before), were disappointing. Yet below the surface like a pearl-bearing oyster buried in the silt, there is something of greater value to be gleaned from current events. There is, in short, an extraordinary opportunity.

Experts have long understood what’s ailing the nation’s largest estuary. To quote Charlton Heston in the 1973 film “Soylent Green,” it is people. Human activities in the six-state watershed from mining to farming, from home construction to heavy industry, from road construction to sewage treatment spew pollution into the water, much of it in the form of excess nutrients. Scientists also know the cure. More environmentally sensitive land use practices that preserve green space and protect streams and rivers, for example, would be high on that list. But many of these solutions are costly and a tough sell. So how do you pay for them and how do you convince people to support them, particularly those who don’t spend weekends on a sailboat in the Choptank River or buy and sell waterfront estates or even order a dozen steamed from their local crab house? Like people living in Pennsylvania, source of more than half the Bay’s freshwater flow, but populated by a lot of folks who wouldn’t know a sook from a jimmy?

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Eureka.

The Chesapeake Bay cleanup, an effort decades in the making, needs two things right now. It needs public support and it needs tax dollars. And it just so happens both might be available. Let’s start with the second one. Thanks to the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill approved last year (and to some degree the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan approved earlier), states are awash in budget surpluses this year and eyeing capital spending opportunities. In Maryland, for example, there is some $4 billion available. Why not put that money to work on behalf of the Bay? Projects like storm water upgrades, sewage system overhauls, or matching dollars that encourage farmers to plant cover crops, or leave unplanted buffer strips around waterways, use fewer pesticides or invest in a greener system of dealing with animal manure, could make a big difference. And the beauty of them is that many are a onetime expense (not a permanent burden on taxpayers) that yield long-term benefits.

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And here’s the other half of that pitch. Why would farmers or city dwellers or suburbanites bother now? Because it isn’t just the Chesapeake Bay that potentially benefits. Many of these same projects would help people in their own backyards. In Pennsylvania farming country, for instance, preserving clean drinking water in rural communities is easier if cattle are kept away from streams. In cities like Baltimore, improving how storm water is handled can prevent basement flooding. And if suburban developers want to continue to ply their trade, they ought to support projects that reduce harmful runoff — like keeping more permeable surfaces or ponds so water has time to filter down in the ground, planting more trees and preserving open space. And all these upgrades are made all the more urgent by climate change as weather worsens and storms become more severe. Protecting water quality isn’t just about downstream in Maryland, it all starts in far-flung places like Cooperstown, New York, and Romney, West Virginia.

The EPA under President Joe Biden certainly seems much more interested in protecting the environment than it did under his predecessor. The only thing missing is for state legislators to put two and two together and recognize the historic opportunity in front of them. There are other competing uses for those billions of federal dollars — many of them quite worthy like improved public transportation and modernized school buildings — but none more important than preserving the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the humans who depend on clean water. Please take a moment to ask your local lawmaker, whether in Annapolis, Harrisburg, Richmond, Albany, Dover or Charleston, to support cost-sharing projects that protect the public’s health, spare homes from flooding, boost local economies and, yes, save the Chesapeake Bay.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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