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By Ann F. Jennings
In February, Congressman Robert Hurt voted to support a measure to block funding for all federal work to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers. Ironically, these include long stretches of the polluted Appomattox , James, and Rivanna rivers flowing through his district.
Congressman Hurt’s vote helped propel the measure successfully through the U.S. House of Representatives. Fortunately, the amendment later died during negotiations with the Senate that produced a final 2011 federal budget.
Unfortunately, anti-clean water sentiment remains alive in Congress. Similar legislation that would seriously reduce or eliminate Bay cleanup funding is likely to be a part of the 2012 budget legislation the House will consider in the coming weeks. It is critical that Congressman Hurt not support such a measure again.
The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and a historic, cultural, and economic icon. Its restoration has been backed for decades by multiple presidents, governors, members of Congress, and millions of voters across Virginia. For too long its waters – from tiny Blue Ridge Mountain creeks to lazy Tidewater rivers – have remained polluted despite repeated pledges to clean them up and despite federal and state laws requiring it.
The result of this decades-long failure of resolve: decimated oyster and fish populations; thousands of lost jobs; billions in lost recreation and seafood dollars; threatened drinking water supplies; and ever more expensive water treatment systems. The decline of the Bay’s oyster industry alone has meant a loss of more than $4 billion for Maryland and Virginia.
Still, there are signs of hope. The Bay’s annual dead zones of oxygen-starved water have gotten smaller, blue crabs are starting to make a comeback with stricter management, and native oysters are showing increasing signs of disease resistance and repopulation.
And over the past year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Virginia, and the other Bay states have worked collaboratively to produce aggressive new pollution reduction plans that each state will implement between now and 2025 as part of a re-energized federal/state partnership. The plans are based on the best science available, will cut pollution from all sources to levels that our rivers and the Bay can safely tolerate (the so-called Bay “pollution diet”), and will provide regular, two-year progress reports to update the public.
Serious Chesapeake Bay observers agree that this renewed federal/state effort is the Bay’s best, and perhaps last, chance for restoration. There is momentum to it, the Bay is already showing some signs of rebounding, and overwhelming majorities of voters in Virginia and the Bay region support cleaning up our rivers and the Chesapeake.
Members of Congress are rightly concerned about federal deficits and reduced spending. The budget-cutting choices are not easy, and interests across the spectrum complain whenever their funding is threatened or cut.
But clean water is fundamental. Polluted creeks, rivers, and bays imperil drinking water supplies, sicken people, close beaches, and kill jobs and commerce. Cutting cleanup funding only worsens these public health and economic problems and makes the inevitable day of reckoning even more expensive for everyone. All the clichés apply: there is no free lunch; pay now, or pay (more) later; we shouldn’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Moreover, spending to reduce pollution stimulates the economy and creates jobs. A 2010 University of Virginia/Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service study found, for example, that every public dollar spent on farm pollution-reduction practices produces $1.56 in new local economic activity and, if such practices were implemented across the state, would generate nearly 12,000 new jobs of approximately one year’s duration.
Finally, stripping the federal government from the Bay cleanup partnership by eliminating federal funding will place the clean water burden squarely on the shoulders of states, municipalities, and individuals, the very constituents members of Congress are elected to represent. Without federal assistance for local clean drinking water, sewage treatment, stormwater runoff, and farm conservation practices, already strapped localities and citizens across the Commonwealth will be left to fend – or suffer -- for themselves.
Virginia needs the federal government as a partner to get the Bay cleanup job done, and Bedford-area residents need Congressman Hurt to ensure that federal government does its part.
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Ann Jennings is Virginia Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.