Aggresive federal efforts could test bay group

By David A. Fahrenthold
December 18, 2009 , The Washington Post

ANNAPOLIS –At the podium, a political science professor was ripping into the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the well-funded granddaddy of bay area environmentalism. The Chesapeake’s biggest fight in a generation is starting, he was saying. And the foundation is too timid to win it.

Which made the room a little tense. He was speaking to about 170 employees of the foundation.

"This is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it’s ticking away every second. You literally have six months to get this right," said Howard R. Ernst, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

He spoke Friday at the foundation’s staff retreat, held in a YMCA hall overlooking a shimmering Chesapeake inlet. "This is your summer of 1968," referring to the civil rights movement.

The struggle for the Chesapeake has always been unusually civilized, marked by searches for consensus, unraised voices and, in many cases, failure. The bay has massive problems with pollution-driven "dead zones," despite a 25-year cleanup effort by the federal government.

But this year, a federal effort to overhaul the cleanup will present a historic test for those genial traditions — and for the bay foundation, the estuary’s polite behemoth.

"This is the best hope I’ve seen for long-term bay improvement in the 30 years I’ve been working at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation," said William C. Baker, the foundation’s president, who stood a few feet away as Ernst criticized his group. But, Baker said, "we run the risk of … snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."

In the past two weeks, it has become clear that this will be an unusually testy season around the bay.

The American Farm Bureau and the National Association of Home Builders have said that the ideas in the cleanup overhaul are too costly and will probably lead to federal meddling in farming and home building.

"The cleaning up of the Chesapeake Bay is an important and desirable thing to do. But it isn’t the only important and desirable thing to do," said U.S. Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., who recently grilled the Environmental Protection Agency’s bay czar at a hearing.


The current debate is happening because of a three-pronged attempt to overhaul the failing cleanup effort. Scientists say that the unusually ambitious proposals make the stakes higher. And if the proposals aren’t derailed by politics, they say, they could change the bay’s dynamics in one stroke.

Three streams of reform

One plan would use computer models for the EPA to set a pollution "diet" for the bay — a calculation of how much manure, fertilizer and treated sewage can wash downstream before the estuary becomes chemically overstuffed. Such pollutants feed algae blooms that suck out underwater oxygen, leaving "dead zones" where fish and crabs struggle to breathe.

Another effort, spurred by an order from President Barack Obama, would allocate money to stop pollution from streamside farms but would let the EPA levy punishments against states that miss their cleanup goals.

And a third idea, proposed in bills from Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., would give the EPA more power to ensure the measures needed for a clean bay are in place by 2025.

By the middle of next year, it should be clearer how hard the EPA will crack down on bay-area states and whether the bills will have a shot in a midterm election year.

The next year "is going to determine whether this goal that we’ve had, of restoring the bay to some semblance of health … is going to be achievable or if it’s just wishful thinking," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.

A ‘political dead zone’

That puts a spotlight on the bay foundation, a 42-year-old group with a $20 million budget. The foundation has taken thousands of schoolchildren on field trips to the bay, and it has regularly criticized failures of the cleanup effort, issuing an annual "State of the Bay" report that has never given the estuary a better score than 29 out of 100.

The foundation has also aided several major legislative battles, helping to get a "flush tax" passed in Maryland that raised money to clean up sewage plants and inserting millions of dollars for cleanups in the federal farm bill. But it failed to produce a clean, revived Chesapeake.

Reently, more confrontational groups have entered the fray. The Waterkeeper Alliance set up franchises on the Potomac, Patuxent and other rivers.


"These new groups are saying that not only is the bay an invaluable resource but that we need to use all the legal tools against people who threaten it," said Rena Steinzor, a professor of environmental law at U-Md.

"Their approach is very aggressive, and full of expectation," she said, and it is "not emphasizing consensus when perhaps other people are not as invested in the consensus as you are."

Ernst, has ripped the group for maintaining a tax status that prohibits it from donating to political campaigns or endorsing candidates. He says that this practice contributes to a "political dead zone" in which politicians fear retribution from business groups that oppose pollution far more than they fear the foundation.

Ernst posted a letter this month on a Maryland blog calling for Baker, the foundation’s president, to resign.

"Baker bemoans the region’s lack of political will for bay policy, but has done little to foster authentic political will," he wrote.

The bay foundation says that these charges are misguided. Its members have made thousands of calls and written thousands of letters in support of the proposals on the table for the Chesapeake, and it has a full-time Washington lobbyist, Doug Siglin.

In the past year, it has also embraced a sharper-edged approach, at least by bay standards. The foundation sued the EPA for missing deadlines to help the bay and organized a protest at a meeting of bay-state governors.

"I think (Ernst) doesn’t simply know what we do," Baker said in a telephone interview.

He said that the lobbying campaign for the proposals on the table is the biggest in the organization’s history.

"If the bay is to be saved, history will record at some point in the future that the biggest fight for clean water the nation has ever seen was launched in 2009," he said. "We are going to fight with every ounce of our ability."

But last week, Ernst — an invited guest — was telling the foundation that it still needs to get angrier or get ready to lose. A question from the audience: Was he saying that the foundation should get in bed with the political machine?

"You get in bed," Ernst said. "Playing politics is not dirty."

There were a few testy exchanges. But when Ernst’s speech ended, Baker seemed to try to return to the geniality that has always marked bay politics.

"He’s not crazy. He’s courageous" for speaking to the group, Baker said. Then he paused. "That’s probably too strong a word."