O’Malley vows to speed rivers cleanup

By Timothy B. Wheelet
May 12, 2009; baltimoresun.com

With scientists pointing to some bright spots and even a possible "tipping point" in the long-running struggle to restore the Chesapeake Bay, Gov. Martin O’Malley vowed Monday to more than double the pace of cleanup of Maryland’s rivers feeding into the troubled estuary.

On the eve of a meeting in Virginia of the bay region’s leaders, O’Malley joined bay scientists aboard the state-owned research vessel
Rachel Carsonfor a firsthand look at the Bush River off Aberdeen Proving Ground, one of a handful of places throughout the Chesapeake watershed where there are signs of recovery from decades of pollution and abuse.

Seeking to jump-start a restoration effort that has missed two cleanup deadlines in the past 26 years, O’Malley, Virginia Gov.
Tim Kaine, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and officials from the District of Columbia and four other states plan to gather Tuesday at Mount Vernon on the Potomac River. There they are expected to announce what they have promised will be an accelerated and more accountable effort to restore the bay.

"When Maryland goes to the table, we’re going to lay out a very aggressive program of increasing our nutrient
[pollution] reductions by 2.5 times what we’ve been doing," O’Malley said. With the help of a boost in federal funds, he said, the state would step up its efforts over the next two years to keep pollution from washing off land – getting farmers to plant "cover crops" and trees to keep fertilizer and soil from washing off their fields.
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The leaders are considering setting a new "end date" 16 years from now for reducing nutrient pollution enough to shrink the oxygen-starved dead zone that spreads across the bottom of the Chesapeake every summer, making much of it unfit for the crabs, fish and oysters that once thrived there. O’Malley called the 2025 deadline "realistic," while suggesting that he would press to achieve Maryland’s cleanup goals sooner than that.

But more important, O’Malley said, he and other leaders will propose steps aimed at achieving interim pollution-reduction targets, or "milestones," over the next two years. Those short-term objectives will help keep public pressure on politicians, he said, who too often put off tough choices when the consequences extend beyond the next election.

"Setting goals is great," the governor said. "But goals without benchmarks are not very helpful when you have an operation like our government that’s run by people like ourselves. You need milestones."

O’Malley also said he expects more help with the bay from the Obama administration. State officials and environmentalists say they expect EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to bring to the meeting a presidential executive order specifying stepped-up federal cleanup efforts.

The governor said he was "buoyed" by the signs of recovery that scientists told him they were seeing in some rivers. While the bay’s overall health remains relatively poor – receiving a C-minus in the latest annual assessment by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science – the upper bay at the mouth of the Susquehanna River and the Bush and Gunpowder rivers along the upper Western Shore are doing better in some respects.

In the past two years, underwater grasses have rebounded significantly in the Bush and Gunpowder, as have clams, worms and other bottom-dwelling animals, said William C. Dennison, the UM center’s vice president for science applications, who oversees the annual bay report card. The grasses have grown so thick now, he said, that they appear to be aiding in clearing up the water and allowing vegetation to spread.

"We have some positive feedback going on," Dennison said. The Bush River, in particular, has benefited from a $40 million upgrade in the Sod Run sewage treatment plant, he said. He also noted that Harford County had limited most of its new development to its designated growth area, limiting the spread of pavement and polluted runoff.

O’Malley joined scientists in dipping sensors into the Bush River, finding the water murky but with enough oxygen to sustain fish. The bay grasses have yet to grow out, which would clear up the water, scientists noted.

Donald F. Boesch, president of the UM environmental science center, said there are preliminary indications that the relatively modest pollution reductions to date have been enough to push the bay to a "tipping point," where its water quality becomes more responsive to further cleanup efforts. The key to restoring healthy water conditions to the main bay may lie in reducing pollution in the rivers, the scientists said, noting that the upper Patuxent and Potomac are improving.

For all those hopeful signs, the scientists pointed out that there are just as many, if not more, rivers where water quality is declining. Among the rivers in failing health are the Severn and the other tributaries of the lower western Shore, which are dominated by development, and the heavily farmed upper Eastern Shore and Choptank River.

William C. Baker, president of the
Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who joined the governor on the cruise, said there are still indications that the state and federal governments have yet to come to grips with what it will take to finally clean up the bay, either in terms of funding or regulations. He noted that Virginia recently approved an increase in nutrient pollution from a pharmaceutical plant on a tributary of the Potomac. The Annapolis-based foundation has sued the federal government for not taking a more aggressive stance to restore the bay.