Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Will Baker judges success of watershed cleanup plans

The federal-state partnership to clean up the Chesapeake Bay began in 1983, but despite billions of dollars spent on ecosystem restoration, the watershed still faces major challenges. During today's OnPoint, Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, talks about some of the remaining problems, from population growth in the mid-Atlantic region to agricultural runoff from local farms. He also explains why Congress should provide more funding for wastewater treatment and innovative agricultural programs, and the role for state officials.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining me today is Will Baker. He's the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Will, thanks a lot for being here today.

Will Baker: Nice to be with you Brian.

Brian Stempeck: Recently your group put out a report card, kind of grading the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, and you gave it a D. What are the major problems that are impeding the cleanup right now?

Will Baker: Well, we've been putting out this report card every year for about 10 years now. And we look at the bay in its ideal state when colonial settlers arrived, where it is now and where it needs to go. And it's actually at about 27 percent of its ideal. We hope to get to a 40 by 2010, a 50 by 2020 and if everything went perfectly, maybe the bay would be restored to 70 percent of its original state.

Brian Stempeck: What are the key problems that you're looking at in terms of what's causing the bay to be so degraded right now?

Will Baker: It may seem simplistic but it really comes down to pollution, and pollution comes from a number of sources, but the Chesapeake Bay enjoys the absolute best science for any type of body of water in the world. So we've got the science, we've got the technology, we've got the public support, what's lacking is the political will. Brian, this is not a problem that needs a solution. It's simply a set of solutions that need to be funded.

Brian Stempeck: What are the solutions? Well there has been funding. I mean in the past 10 years there's been, what, $3 or $4 billion spent on this cleanup effort, so some of the money is in fact there. Is it just a question of dollars?

Will Baker: It's a question of more dollars and better focus. Government agencies compete with one another. We know they do. So you'll have a lot of money perhaps on the table, but it's fragmented. It's unfocused. It's not integrated. There's really very little leadership. And that's what we think is so critical, to go after the primary sources of pollution that are the drivers of this systemic decline. And they are pollution that comes from improperly treated sewage. That's the low hanging fruit, a very technological fix. That can get to 35 percent of the way to your goal. Next, also low hanging fruit, is helping farmers reduce runoff from farmland. Farmers consistently demonstrate they want to do the right thing. All the conservation programs are oversubscribed, meaning there are waiting lists. We simply need more resources. And third, I'd put on the list, air pollution. What goes up does come down. The amount of nitrogen, even mercury coming into the Chesapeake Bay, much of it comes from automobile exhaust, power plant emissions, factory emissions, that sort of thing.

Brian Stempeck: Let's talk about the first thing you mentioned, wastewater treatment. That's been a big issue on Capitol Hill recently, talking about new projects the Congress might be able to fund. In the past year or two we've seen the governors of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland work on the waste water issue, putting a lot of money towards new treatment plants. Have they done enough? What else needs to be done that they haven't done so far?

Will Baker: Well we're pretty close. When the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said that's focus on sewage treatment upgrades, about three years ago, people said, "That's already been done. We did that in the '80s." We showed them the science, showed them how much it could be yet been proved and what it would cost. Maryland and Virginia have both dedicated significant sources of funding. Pennsylvania, which is a big part of the Bay watershed, is starting to get onboard. Those treatment plants will be upgraded over the next five to 10 years and that will really demonstrate significant water quality improvement. So we're on the road. We have to keep pressure on the government to spend the money properly, to get the right plants done first, that sort of thing.

Brian Stempeck: Where's the money to upgrade those wastewater plants come from? Is that something that's been passed on to consumers?

Will Baker: Yes, in different states different mechanisms. Governor Ehrlich presented to the Legislature the so-called "flush fee," really quite remarkable. For $2.50 per household per month over nearly $1 billion in bond funding has been leveraged. Less than the cost of the gallon of milk per household per month and we're going to get about $900 million worth of improvement. Virginia has been funding it so far out of general funds. Just two days ago a bill was introduced to also have a dedicated fee to produce about $70 million a year from a dedicated source. And that would survive ups and downs of the budget cycle.

Brian Stempeck: Let's talk about some of the agriculture sector a little bit. This is another, you mentioned that the waste water is kind of the low hanging fruit. It seems like the bigger problem is the runoff from a lot of the farms in the region. Congress will be looking to reauthorize the farm bill this year.

Will Baker: Right.

Brian Stempeck: The governor of Pennsylvania recently said that's a good way to look to restore the Chesapeake Bay. How does the farm bill tie into restoring the bay?

Will Baker: Yeah, the federal farm bill will be reupped in 2007, so we have a little bit of time, but markup will probably occur in May and June. The federal farm bill gives a far disproportionate share of the federal money to the Midwestern states, the big square states on the map. The East and Western part of the country are really getting shortchanged, not just in terms of total dollars, but in terms of dollar per acre under cultivation. So we think that Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania farmers should be working together to try and influence a reauthorization or a reallocation of those dollars. And they'll have friends throughout the East Coast and the West Coast to help them. That could produce some big funding for the Chesapeake Bay farmers.

Brian Stempeck: Give us some of the details. I mean what is that money spent on? If you're talking to an individual farmer in Pennsylvania who has fertilizer running off into the bay, how does this money help him stop that degradation?

Will Baker: OK, the vast majority of the current farm bill goes to price supports and subsidies for commodities. So we're talking about the commodity folks versus the conservation folks. If you had more money for agriculture here, in the existing money, do things like provide funding to do buffers alongside streams and creeks to reduce the amount of runoff. To put cover crops on the fields during the winter, which literally soak up the excess amount of fertilizer, nitrogen and phosphorus. To do things with feed to allow more precise feeding of animals which reduces what comes out the other end. There is an enzyme called phytase, for instance for chickens, greatly improves the amount of waste product, nitrogen and phosphorus, coming out of the chickens. So there are solutions. It's simply a matter of helping farmers who are working on the margins, nobody's getting rich farming, and farmers are going out of business, as we know, selling off for development, stay in business and do the right thing.

Brian Stempeck: Is this kind of thing happening now? I mean how often are we seeing farmers adopt these kinds of practices?

Will Baker: It's absolutely happening now. And the problem is, is that farmers are signing up for these programs. There are waiting list for instance for the cover crop program in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, but there's not enough government funding to provide all the farmers with the resources to do the job. So we're simply talking about increasing the resources and you're going to see a commensurate reduction of pollution. It sounds too simple, too good to be true, but in fact it is. It is not too simple to be true. It will work. The science backs it up. Demonstration projects repeatedly have shown that these programs work.

Brian Stempeck: If it's so easy to fix some of these problems why hasn't it happened yet? I mean you mentioned that your group's score on the report card has remained fairly dismal for the past five years. Why hasn't that improved if these are so easy to fix?

Will Baker: We ask ourselves that question every day. And part of the problem is you go out to the Chesapeake Bay, you go out on even the Potomac River on a sunny day, it looks beautiful. It looks great. People like to live along the water. But what they don't realize is when you go down below the surface you have a system that is dangerously out of balance. Last summer, for instance, 41 percent of the entire bay and tidal rivers didn't have enough oxygen to support life. It was in fact a dead zone. So part of the problem, we think, is that the public just hasn't reached a level of outrage in the way the bay and its rivers are being treated and conveying that to the elected officials. The elected officials know it. They should be acting on their own, but the public has got to join together, come to our web site, look for ways to get involved, to put pressure on elected officials to do the right thing.

Brian Stempeck: One of the other major problems that's affecting the bay is population growth.

Will Baker: No question.

Brian Stempeck: In the past few decades a huge amount of people moved into Maryland and Virginia, the population really exploding in these areas. How do you combat something like that? I mean it seems like that would be really an inevitable, something that you really can't do anything about.

Will Baker: I hate to say it, but the reality probably is nothing you can do about population in the bay watershed short of working on population worldwide. Some people will say we should work on immigration in the United States, less people in the United States, less people on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. We think that it's a matter of dealing with the people who are here in ways that can reduce their impact. Here's a little bit of good news. Forty years ago there were 8 million people living in the bay watershed. Today there is 16 [million]. The amount of pollution, we say, is just as bad and we are concerned by that. But you can look at it as 16 million people polluting as much as 8 million, that's a reduction of 50 percent per capita. So we are making progress. People should feel like there is hope, but we've got a lot further to go.

Brian Stempeck: Last question for you. What would you like to see from Congress this year? We talked about working on the farm bill a bit, a little bit on the wastewater plants. Is there anything else you'd like to see from Capitol Hill?

Will Baker: Absolutely. We think that the federal government has way underfunded Chesapeake Bay programs. When you look at the ratio of what the states are doing compared to what the feds are doing, the states are putting in much more money. The feds have been very generous to the Florida Everglades, an important national treasure in its own right. But this is the heart of the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, Washington, D.C. in the center of the watershed. If we lose the Chesapeake Bay what real hope do we have for the planet as a whole? So we think Congress must provide more funding. And the president, of course, has been cutting funding. We've seen funds slashed for wastewater treatment plants for instance over the last four or five years. We need to reverse that.

Brian Stempeck: Alright Will, we're out of time. Thanks a lot for stopping by today.

Will Baker: Thank you Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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