Educated Public Supports Bay Cleanup by

I had the pleasure of sailing the Chesapeake Bay this past weekend. It's the largest estuary in North America and the third largest in the world. Its watershed is home to 16 million people in six states covering 64,000 square miles.

Dawn C. Kristof, WWEMA President

I had the pleasure of sailing the Chesapeake Bay this past weekend. It's the largest estuary in North America and the third largest in the world. Its watershed is home to 16 million people in six states covering 64,000 square miles.

When Captain John Smith explored the Bay in the early 1600s, he described clear water revealing meadows of underwater grasses, oyster reefs so prodigious they posed threats to navigation, and abundant fish. That Bay does not exist today.

Upon first observation, one could not miss the significant debris floating in the Bay, no doubt the remnants of Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne. It's reported that more water flowed into the Chesapeake Bay last month than in any September since 1937. This could have significant consequences with high water flows that contain large amounts of pollutants causing algae blooms and oxygen-poor "bad water" for the Bay.

According to the State of the Bay Report published by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Bay's health has languished at about one-quarter of its potential for the last six years. During this past summer, the Bay's "dead zone" was among the largest in the 20 years of Bay monitoring. Toxic chemicals in the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., a part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, caused the highest rates of liver cancer in fish ever documented in an American river.

The chief culprit degrading the Bay remains excessive nitrogen pollution coming from sewage treatment plants, farm runoff, septic systems, and urban storm water.

The cost to modernize sewage treatment plants and implement needed nutrient removal technologies to meet Bay cleanup goals in the State of Virginia alone has been estimated at $1.2 billion!

The agricultural community faces its own challenges with agricultural runoff contributing 40 percent of the nitrogen and 50 percent of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay. Chickens outnumber people approximately 1,000 to 1 on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The 185 million livestock animals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed - more than 11 times the human population - produce 1.4 billion cubic feed (44 million tons) of manure, enough to fill more than 405,000 tractor trailers, which if placed end to end, would stretch from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco and back to Madison, WI.

The cost to fix the Bay is estimated in the billions, but the solution will not be found in Washington, D.C. Uncle Sam is broke!

The citizens of Maryland came to that conclusion and took responsibility for the fate of their Bay by overwhelmingly passing landmark legislation establishing the "Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Restoration Fund," financed with a $2.50-a-month charge on sewer bills and an equivalent $30-a-year fee on septic system owners.

The fees from sewage treatment plant users will generate an estimated $65 million per year and will be used to upgrade Maryland's 66 major sewage treatment plants discharging to the Chesapeake Bay with enhanced nutrient removal technology to achieve wastewater effluent quality of 3 mg/l total nitrogen and 0.3 mg/l total phosphorus. Revenue from the septic users, estimated at $12.6 million per year, will be used to upgrade or replace failing septic systems and provide farmers with cost share assistance to help plant cover crops to prevent nutrient runoff from farms.

What was particularly interesting about this legislation was that polls taken in advance of its passage showed that an overwhelming 87 percent of Maryland citizens supported the idea of upgrading sewage treatment plants to improve the health of the Bay and felt that $2.50 per month per household was a reasonable fee to assess both sewer and septic owners. A similar poll was taken of Virginia voters with the majority expressing concern about pollution of state rivers and the Chesapeake Bay – exceeding concerns about other such prominent issues as the economy, education and taxes - and two-thirds saying they would be willing to pay $50 more a year on their water bills to clean up Virginia rivers and the Bay.

There are two lessons to be learned in this recent victory for the environment. When citizens are educated as to the condition of their water supplies and water resources, they are willing to take personal responsibility for protecting it. Second, the federal government can no longer be expected to bail out communities' needs when it comes to protecting the environment.

For the first time in history, the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill cutting the Clean Water State Revolving Fund by 37 percent for fiscal year 2005. Even this popular program, which provides a perpetual source of long-term funding to rehabilitate our nation's wastewater infrastructure, can no longer count on receiving congressional support. Our industry must accept this fact, help educate the consumers, and have the political will to charge full cost of service rates wherever possible in order to become self-sustaining. The future health of our environment depends on this. Ultimately, the investments made today will return multiple dividends to future generations.

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