WASHINGTON – A blue-ribbon panel said Wednesday that federal and state governments need to come up with $15 billion for Chesapeake Bay clean up over the next six years, calling it “the last best chance” to save the troubled watershed.
The report by the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Blue Ribbon Finance Panel also called for the creation of a regional financing authority that would distribute that money without regard to state boundaries in the watershed.
But while the 15-member panel offered financing suggestions, such as surcharges, fees and bonds, it stopped short of outlining where exactly the money might come from. That decision will be left to the Chesapeake Executive Council, a group of governors and other political and environmental leaders from the region who will consider the panel’s recommendations in December.
A spokeswoman for Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich said Wednesday he had not seen the report and could not comment on it.
But panel members said the executive council must act quickly.
“If it doesn’t, the bay will die,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker, one of the panel members. “That’s what’s at risk.”
The panel said that current programs to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution are inadequate and insufficiently funded to meet a 2010 deadline to get the bay off the Environmental Protection Agency’s impaired waters list.
“The Chesapeake Bay, we’ve concluded, is in peril,” said Gerald Baliles, the panel chairman and former governor of Virginia. “And time is running out on our last best chance to save it.”
Agencies that span the six-state watershed originally told the panel that it would take up to $28 billion to clean the bay and its tributaries, but Baliles said the panel thought that figure was unrealistic. He called the $15 billion figure a head start, and the panel’s best estimate of what it would take to get the bay off the EPA list.
The funds recommended by the panel would be in addition to about $1 billion that federal, state and local governments already devote to the bay annually, said Mike Burke, acting associate director at the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, had not seen the report, but said $15 billion was not unreasonable.
“It is not completely out of the question,” he said. “Not by a long shot when you consider what’s at stake.”
The panel recommended that $12 billion of the new money come from the federal government and the remaining $3 billion come from the states. That money would be used for loans and grants for cleanup programs, especially those targeted at reducing pollution from agricultural runoff, wastewater treatment plants and development.
The regional finance authority charged with managing that money would be expected to prioritize projects without regard to state borders in the watershed that includes Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The report suggests that the state money could be raised through development fees, levies on residential fertilizers or surcharges such as Maryland’s “flush tax” on water, sewer and septic fees. It also recommends creating a nutrient trading program for wastewater treatment plants.
“We just have to put our creative minds together and figure out a way to do it,” said Jack Greer, director of the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center, who helped conduct research for the panel. “Failure is not an option.”
The report stressed that funding be used to reduce sediment and nutrient pollution — nitrogen and phosphorus — which comes from agricultural runoff, wastewater treatment plants, septic systems and lawn treatments.
Excessive nutrients can cause algae blooms, which prevent sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and deplete oxygen levels in the water. Those conditions disrupt habitat for animals that live in the bay and have caused fish and shellfish populations to decline and led to a drop in underwater grasses.
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