Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has helped restore many of America's waters, allowing fish and humans to swim safely in them. But the largest estuary in the US, the Chesapeake Bay, remains in trouble and little changed. The problem? More than two decades of efforts have fallen foul to complexity, size, and lack of political will.
Americans deserve a pat on the back for gradually understanding that water knows no political boundaries and that cleanup efforts must include an entire watershed (or planet, in the case of global warming). But all the players must do their part, and the save-the-bay project in this mid-Atlantic estuary shows just how tough that is to accomplish.
Even after $6 billion and the involvement of six states; Washington, D.C.; and the Environmental Protection Agency; the Chesapeake Bay is about as "dead" as it was in 1983, when its future was handed to federal, state, and local authorities under the loose guidance of the EPA.
Waste from farms and sewage plants, airborne pollutants, and runoff from developed areas collect in the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed. They contribute to algae blooms that deplete oxygen, creating areas where creatures such as crabs and oysters can't breathe.
Since 1983, the bay's crab harvest is down 60 percent while the oyster harvest is off by 96 percent, though some of this is due to overharvesting. In about that same time frame, the human population in the watershed is up by 34 percent.
Last week, a coalition of environmentalists, former government officials, and watermen sued the EPA. The coalition argues that the agency broke two federal-state contracts that promised a cleaner bay. It wants a judge to order the EPA to crack down on polluters.
Lake Erie, once considered biologically dead, again supports aquatic life. The number of rivers, lakes, and bays regarded as safe for swimming and fishing has doubled since the Clean Water Act became law. Boston Harbor, Tampa Bay, and the Hudson River have all improved. But a third of US waterways still are not fishable or swimmable.
The Chesapeake stands out for its size and complexity, making it a more difficult problem to solve. By comparison, the Hudson River, a watershed that is one-fifth the size, now has more oxygen than it used to.
The Chesapeake's challenges range from a lack of political will to significant changes in farm and development practices to getting follow-through from states and localities. Huge technical issues remain, such as establishing acceptable daily pollution loads in the bay and its tributaries – the EPA's job – and then issuing permits that correspond to these totals.
A resurgent green movement, reflected in the suit against the EPA, may help, but there's no question that an effort this big and diffuse needs better leadership and enforcement. There are no penalties for missing cleanup goals, for instance.
At the very least, the Chesapeake Bay lawsuit sounds the alarm: for a quarter century, this cleanup effort has been swimming in circles.