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Chesapeake Bay: New wind in the cleanup sails | COMMENTARY

An aerial view of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Sandy Point. File.
An aerial view of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Sandy Point. File. (By Lisa Masson / HANDOUT)

Restoring the Chesapeake Bay has always been a Sisyphean task involving a 64,000-square-mile catchment area, six states and the District of Columbia with interests that don’t always align, the reality of balancing the needs of population growth against their harmful impact on water quality and a sometimes-unreliable partner in the federal government. Soon, one of those realities is about to change. Sometime after the inauguration Wednesday of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice-president of the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is likely to resume a more active role in cleaning up the nation’s largest estuary. Not immediately necessarily. Perhaps not even as much as Bay advocates would like, but there are reasons to be hopeful that this challenging task so important to Marylanders (although hardly mentioned, if at all, during last fall’s political campaign) is due for a major — as the pandemic expression goes — shot in the arm.

Step one will be the posture of the EPA under Michael Regan, Mr. Biden’s pick to run the agency. Unlike Donald Trump, who chose EPA heads on how they might weaken clean water, air and land protections, the 44-year-old North Carolinian does not have ties to major polluters. While much of the attention has been focused on climate change, he’s also likely to bring greater balance into other regulatory areas as well. In turn, Maryland and other Chesapeake Bay states can likely drop their lawsuits against the EPA for its failure to enforce environmental protections. That’s a particularly important matter for the Bay cleanup as the EPA’s role in the so-called “Clean Water Blueprint” is to hold states accountable for what are known as “TMDL”, targets or “total maximum daily load” of common pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Under the multi-state agreement, certain cleanup standards have to be met by 2025. With the threat of federal intervention, some states are likely to balk at the cost and inconvenience of these measures. Case in point: Regulating Pennsylvania farmers who are considered a major source of pollution in the Susquehanna River which is, in turn, the single largest source of freshwater into the Bay.

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Rarely are pollution control efforts without controversy. Build more effective urban storm water control structures. Somebody has to pay for it. Tell farmers to use less fertilizer or no-till methods. Some investment may be required there, too. Raise the standards on wastewater treatment. Well, you get the picture. The region has plenty of “good” cops, public figures who are willing to speak in glowing terms about the Chesapeake Bay’s history, its beauty, its seafood industry. But when it comes time to call a “bad” cop to issue fines or shutdown the non-compliant or set aside tax dollars? That’s when the political establishment can get a bit squeamish.

Second, we need a federal government willing to invest in clean water. The Trump administration happily zeroed out the federal budget for the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program; it took Congress to restore it. But that’s a drop in the bucket. The real cost is in things like public works infrastructure like water and sewer lines that don’t leak, or clean energy so mercury isn’t raining down from coal-fired power plant emissions, or providing help for farmers to reduce harmful runoff from their fields. Some of these efforts should dovetail nicely with Mr. Biden’s climate change goals but getting a divided Congress to spend more on infrastructure proved a challenge during the Trump years and it’s likely going to continue to be a struggle now.

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The best news, however, is that there is much that Mr. Regan and others in the Biden administration can do simply by reversing some of the worst decisions made over the last four years. Loss of stream and wetlands protections, for example, should be high on that list. So should protecting a healthy drinking water supply. Rolling back the bad choices of the Trump era alone won’t save the Chesapeake Bay (things weren’t pristine prior to his arrival) but it certainly suggests things will no longer be quite so adrift, or worse, moving in exactly the wrong direction. Just two weeks ago, the Bay earned a D-plus in its biennial report card from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as striped bass or “rockfish,” a signature species, suffered further decline.

Finally, there’s another reason why Mr. Biden might want to turn his attention to reinvigorating the Chesapeake Bay cleanup — it’s something that can unite, not divide. One of the triumphs of the Bay program is its broad appeal across political parties, urban and rural communities and across state lines. Mr. Biden should know: Delaware is in the watershed, too. Even Ronald Reagan once toured Tilghman Island and dined on crab cakes to promise federal support for the Bay cleanup in 1984. When the blue crabs begin running again next spring might be a fine time for a similar presidential appearance (and pledge) on the Eastern Shore.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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