How will we know the Obama Administration is serious about the “Save the Bay” mandate?

Since the original Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed in 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has highlighted watershed protection projects in the Chesapeake Bay watershed with great publicity.  In both Democratic and Republican administrations, conservation of every mud puddle was touted as a step towards the end goal of restoring water quality to the levels required by the Federal Clean Water Act.

Over the same 27 years, population has boomed in the watershed.  Reductions in per capita pollution, primarily through expensive upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, have been offset by increased nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment pollution from new point and non-point sources.  The bay did not get clean.

Now, with the firm pressure of a Federal court ordering the EPA to comply with the Clean Water Act, by November 2011 Prince William County and every other jurisdiction in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will have measureable milestones between 2011-2025 to show progress in reducing nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment pollution from that local jurisdiction.

We might be getting serious about compliance, finally… but how will we know if the push for compliance with the Clean Water Act is “real” this time, or just more posturing?

It’s hard to tell from watching just EPA right now.  That agency recently completed a round of public meetings, educating local and state agencies and citizen groups about the timeframe for completing yet more studies to determine the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of pollution that the bay can absorb.

EPA appears to be conducting a transparent “no surprises” approach, without bombshells. Within 60 days, EPA will tell jurisdictions if their clean-up plans, to reduce their pollution levels to limits defined through state-generated Watershed Implementation Plans, are adequate.  Within another 60 days, EPA will tell jurisdictions that don’t plan and implement adequate action strategies what “consequences” they face.

EPA is telling local jurisdictions to prepare to spend local money to clean up locally-produced pollution.  The Federal government will provide some funding for implementation planning, but don’t plan on the great cornucopia in Congress to pour forth unlimited funds for local cleanup projects.

In the public meetings, EPA touted its “consequences” for failure to meet milestones.  Unfortunately, when revealed on December 29, the consequences appear to be just minor threats to Northern Virginia jurisdictions.  If access to EPA grants was constrained… hey, so what?  Funding for upgrades to our major sewage treatment plants will be committed before any Watershed Implementation Plans are assessed by EPA.

Fortunately, the Federal government has more arrows in its quiver than just EPA and its mild consequences.  Other agencies have the power to shape development in our region.  This time, the Federal agencies may be working in concert to implement the president’s May 12, 2009 Executive Order on Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration.

The best clue so far: the Department of the Interior is threatening to object to the proposed “connector” road in Charles County, Maryland.  As described by the Washington Post, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is prepared to deny wetlands permits for the expansion of the road linking Waldorf and Indian Head, in order to conserve the Mattawoman Creek watershed.

If the Federal government is prepared to block transportation projects in order to save the bay, then there’s hope that state/local jurisdictions will feel enough pressure to change the business-as-usual approach to new development.

New development generates new pollution, and if we don’t stop that… don’t expect local taxpayers to fund restoration efforts to correct old pollution sources. A few mud puddles might still get saved in the future – but what’s the point, if new pollution from Avendale or other dumb growth projects will just overwhelm the Bay?

But if jurisdictions such as Prince William do alter local ordinances to save significant streams from destruction, then there’s hope.  Local politicians will still complain about the cost of implementing Federal/state mandates, but we will have turned the corner once we limit future pollution from future growth.

At that point, it makes sense to invest heavily in restoring streamside buffers, upgrading old stormwater ponds, and doing other things to mitigate the impacts of old development… because 15 more years of restoration projects could finally make a difference, by 2025.

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