Federal Action on the Bay
President Obama wades into the Chesapeake.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
AS EXPECTED, the meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council yesterday did not come up with any magical prescriptions for the deteriorating health of the bay. But it was accompanied by something new, and potentially valuable: an executive order from the president that commits the federal government to a more direct and assertive role in cleaning up the nation's largest estuary.
The Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration order establishes a Federal Leadership Committee to oversee and coordinate all state and federal activities to clean the waterway. Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, will lead the outfit. She will consult with Cabinet secretaries and state authorities to devise a master plan for the bay's revival. The order also commands federal agencies with land in the watershed to implement land management practices that will benefit the health of the bay. Authority under the Clean Water Act is Ms. Jackson's hammer to ensure that the goals President Obama sets out are met.
On the one hand, you could look at yesterday's meeting with a certain weariness. Officials from the federal government, along with the six states and the District of Columbia that share the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed, promised -- surprise! -- more studies and reports. A draft report on the key challenges to protecting and restoring the bay is due within 120 days. Final reports from the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense and Interior departments are due within 180 days. A draft of the overall strategy for public comment is also due within 180 days, with the final document submitted within one year. As if nodding to the work already being done by states, including Maryland, Virginia and the District, Mr. Obama encourages them to keep going before the final strategy has been adopted. But there's been so much study of what ails the waterway that these deadlines surely could be met earlier.
On the other hand, Mr. Obama's leadership could prove to be a big deal. Not since 1984 has a president shown such concern for the sorry state of the Chesapeake Bay. That's when President Ronald Reagan mentioned it in his State of the Union address and put a dollop of money into the budget to fund what would become the Chesapeake Bay Program of the EPA. But despite that program and unending promises, conditions in the bay have only declined in the two and a half decades since. Now Mr. Obama has put the full weight of the White House behind cleaning up the historic waterway. If the effort fails this time, he'll own it.