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Does Maryland have the political will to restore the bay?

On Oct. 4, Jay Sadowski, an avid fisherman and hunter, died of leukemia at age 59. The cancer was discovered while he was being treated for a flesh-eating infection he contracted while fishing in the South River near where Gov. Larry Hogan lives. The infection ravaged his body even before the cancer could.

Other people around the bay also have contracted these infections (see their stories and Jay's here: mdstormwater.org). But Jay's death stands out as a tragedy of the commons, a reflection on the poor health of the bay and the inability of policy makers to make the tough decisions necessary to restore this great estuary.

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Besides human health risks, the failure to restore the bay to meet minimum Clean Water Act standards has resulted in collapsed or serious declines in important fisheries such as oysters, shad and soft clams. The oyster fishery is at 1 percent of historic levels, the shad fishery has failed to recover despite a 30-year closure, and the soft clam fishery is nearly non-existent.

The blue crab fishery also is in decline.

Growing numbers of fish have cancerous lesions and serious infections, and we see more intersex fish, all caused by pollutants. Three-quarters of bay segments are impaired because of toxic pollution. In early August, there was a major bay dead zone with oxygen depleted waters, the fifth largest in the last 30 years.

If in 1983, when the first Bay Agreement was signed in Virginia, we were to create a nightmare scenario for the bay, this would be it. We are living that nightmare.

What went wrong?

First, the voluntary efforts did not work. Deadlines for taking actions to curb pollutants passed, were delayed again and again, and no political repercussions ensued. The EPA was forced to issue mandatory pollution restrictions in 2010, but the states were given until 2025 to fully meet them.

Second, there has been a failure to properly address pollutants from agricultural operations and from developed land in stormwater runoff. Farms are the largest source of excess nutrients flowing to the bay from fertilizers and thousands of tons of manure. These nutrients choke our river systems and cause dead zones and lead to declines in bay grasses, and they increase the likelihood of infections. Agriculture also contributes 59 percent of sediment smothering oyster bars.

Farm conservation measures are the most cost-effective way to reduce pollutants. Science-based regulations proposed at the tail end of the O'Malley administration to limit manure on farm fields already saturated with phosphorus were just withdrawn by Governor Hogan in one of his first executive actions. This occurred even though this common sense proposal was years in the making and was weakened to give many farmers until 2022 to comply. Maryland pledged to implement such restrictions by 2013 in its clean-up plan approved by the EPA.

Polluted stormwater runoff from developed areas is another significant source of nutrients and sediment and dominates water quality in urban areas. Many elected officials have mocked the modest stormwater fee designed to reduce this pollution. These same officials present no alternatives for raising the necessary $5 billion needed to meet federal standards. Will the new governor also act to repeal this small fee to help restore the bay? He pledged moderation and cooperation and making Maryland better for families, but allowing the continued desecration of the Chesapeake to appease the anti-regulatory zealots hardly seems like the route to take. What about watermen and their families suffering declines in their fisheries from so much pollution?

Poor land use where forests are destroyed and more land covered with concrete increases the flow of stormwater pollutants.

"The" singular success of the bay restoration efforts is in upgrading sewerage treatment plants. The Flush Tax was developed and signed into law by the last Republican governor. This legislation provides for state-of-the-art nutrient removal at the 67 largest sewerage treatment plants covering 95 percent of wastewater flows with a price tag of $1.4 billion. Every household now pays $60 per year to make it work.

We know we can effectively address farm and stormwater pollution, but is there the political will to do so? If not, the bay recovery is doomed and the bay will continue to decline. Not only will working watermen suffer, but those who love to swim, fish, crab, or boat in the bay will suffer along with them, like my friend Jay and the family he left behind.

Gerald Winegrad is a former state senator who sponsored or managed much of the bay legislation of the 1980s and early 1990s and taught graduate courses on the bay; his email is gwwabc@comcast.net.

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