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Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort languishes

Despite 25 years and almost $6 billion, the government campaign to clean up the Chesapeake Bay has failed to meet its deadlines.
Image: crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay
Randy Plummer looks off into the Chesapeake Bay after a day of crabbing near Ridge, Md. on June 23. Plummer, 19, hopes to work as a full-time crabber but is concerned about the future viability of crabbing, and for the health of the Chesapeake Bay.Jacquelyn Martin / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Despite 25 years and almost $6 billion, the government campaign to clean up the Chesapeake Bay has failed to meet its deadlines.

A tour of the Chesapeake and its watershed shows what happened: Solutions to the pollution problems were often obvious. But governments struggled to implement them on a large scale, unable to overcome budget shortages, bureaucratic inertia and political opposition from farmers, builders, watermen and other groups.

Stream-bank fences
"That's a horror show."

Oranges and yellows were climbing the wooded mountains on either side of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. But Jeff Kelble, who is the Shenandoah's "riverkeeper," was looking at a something uglier: a weedy stream through a dairy pasture, with a line of black-and-white cows standing in the middle of it.

"They're just [defecating] away," Kelble said. "Where's it going to go?"

In this case, to the North River, then to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, then to the Potomac River, then to the Chesapeake. There, tiny particles of these cows' manure would feed the algae that cause dead zones.

This kind of pollution, which scientists call "direct deposition" of manure, has a simple solution, which those leading the cleanup have known about since 1983.

Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania all pledged that their farmers would put up fences along streambanks to keep cows out. But they didn't make it a legal requirement: Officials feared this kind of regulation would be a burden on farmers and would be difficult to enforce.

Instead, governments encouraged farmers to do it and reimbursed them for some or all of the cost.

"Most people want to do what's right, and it's best to incent that," said former Virginia governor George Allen (R), who served from 1994 to 1998.

But in Virginia, many farmers simply didn't want the hassle. And reimbursement funding, which came out of state budget surpluses, was often short. From July 2006 to June 2007, Virginia turned away 144 farmers who wanted to fence off 84 miles of streambank.

Now, Virginia has reached only about 20 percent of its goal for fencing off streams. Across the Chesapeake watershed, the figure is 27 percent.

"Perhaps at some point we need to begin asking ourselves . . . 'Is this voluntary approach actually getting us where we need to be?' " said L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia's secretary of natural resources. "That has not been the Virginia way."

Blue crabs
Under the water now, the sooks are finishing their run.

Millions of female crabs have crawled dozens of miles south along the shoulders of the bay's deep channel, completing an astonishing and hidden migration. They will overwinter stuck in the mud, wake up when weather warms and release their eggs into the tide.

One early winter day, Adam Smith, a crabber from Shady Side in Anne Arundel County, wasn't chasing them. Instead, he was using a metal dredge to clean the bottom of the Severn River, preparing it for a state-run oyster-planting program.

The work was compensation for the new limits on the crab harvest: Maryland was, in effect, paying him and dozens of other watermen not to crab.

"Any little bit helps, these days," said Smith, 33, as he was pelted by spitball-size wads of blowing snow. "It gets a little harder each year."

In 1987, the bay cleanup promised to rebuild the Chesapeake's blue crab population. In the 1990s, Maryland and Virginia joined a "Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee" and worked together to limit the harvest by upping the minimum size for catchable crabs and forcing watermen to take more time off.

But it wasn't enough: Watermen worked harder, and the crab population remained small, so that in some years more than 70 percent of the adult crabs in the bay wound up caught. That was far above 53 percent, the level considered "overfishing."

In 2003, the committee disbanded. The official reason was that Virginia could not afford its $95,000 share of the budget.

Howard R. Ernst, a political-science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who has studied the bay cleanup, said he believes the states caved to pressure from watermen, who called the harvest limits crushing. "It was killed because it worked," he said.

"Did the watermen's . . . lobbying head off major crab regulation cutbacks? . . . Yes," said John Bull, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. But Bull said that states also hadn't realized the severity of the crab's decline until the past couple of years. "It's understandable that we didn't go far enough," he said.

Septic tanks
There was a problem under Eric Bentley's lawn.

Bentley, who designs satellite-guidance systems for NASA in Greenbelt, lives near the waterfront in Stevensville, Md., just across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. His 30-year-old septic tank was working as it was meant to, which meant it was slowly leaking nitrogen into the dirt, where groundwater carried it to the bay.

Of all the Chesapeake's problems, this is the kind the cleanup has done the least to fix. Nitrogen from urban and suburban sources -- greasy city streets, fertilized lawns and a growing number of septic tanks -- has gone up 14 percent since 1985, and phosphorus has gone up 16 percent.

The problem: Cleaning up these sources requires digging up storm water pipes. Building "rain gardens" near mall parking lots. And tearing up Bentley's lawn.

In 2000, the state proposed requiring cleaner septic systems in areas near the shore; that idea was shot down after builders and real estate agents said it might chill the market for new homes. And, until 2006, Maryland homeowners who fixed the systems on their own got no reimbursement from the state.

"We knew, collectively, that septic systems were a source. But there wasn't a program in place," said Shari T. Wilson, the state's secretary of the environment.

There is now, funded by Maryland's "flush tax." Bentley got his tank replaced this year, which cost more than $10,000. The state paid all but $350.

That leaves at least 50,660 septic systems to fix in Maryland, officials say.

The state can afford about 650 a year.