Declaring the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure that needs urgent help, the Obama administration unveiled sweeping plans Thursday for jump-starting restoration efforts, including proposals to crack down on pollution from farming and development in the six-state region that drains into North America's largest estuary.
They also called for giving the federal government more say in setting baywide regulations to protect key fisheries like crabs and oysters, long a source of tension between Maryland and neighboring Virginia. Some of the plans, affecting everyone from farmers and fishermen to homeowners and developers, are likely to meet resistance as the details emerge.
"This is a new era of federal leadership," declared Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. Joining her in briefing reporters about the plans were the interior and agriculture secretaries - apparently demonstrating the priority the Obama administration puts on the cleanup.
President Barack Obama had ordered a series of draft reports last spring that federal agencies released Thursday, when he called for greater federal involvement in the largely state-led effort, which has repeatedly failed to achieve its goals for reducing pollution over the past 26 years.
Although the federal-state partnership that has directed cleanup efforts since the 1980s has made some progress, Jackson said, "the poor health of the Chesapeake remains one of our nation's most significant environmental challenges." With the bay's waters still fouled by farm and lawn fertilizer, sewage and air pollution, she said, people living in the bay watershed "expect and deserve rivers and streams that are healthy and thriving."
Included in the reports are proposals to tighten federal regulation and oversight of polluted rainfall runoff from poultry and other livestock farms, and from urban and suburban streets, parking lots and lawns. The EPA also wants to hold Maryland and other bay states more accountable for reducing the pollution that is under their control, even by blocking permits for new businesses or development if sufficient progress is not being made.
The plans, which deal with everything from reducing pollution to boosting public access to the bay and preparing for the threat of climate change, are to be woven into a coherent cleanup strategy by early November. Then, after further public review, they are to be adopted by May.
The proposals drew praise for the most part from state officials and environmentalists, while farm groups, home builders and others were guarded, even skeptical.
Gov. Martin O'Malley hailed what he called an "unprecedented federal commitment" to restoring the bay, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine called it "encouraging." A spokeswoman for Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, though, said officials there have no comment until they can review all the plans.
The Natural Resources Defense Council's Nancy Stoner praised the EPA for proposing to tackle large-scale animal farming and polluted storm runoff.
"They're proposing here some things we'd like to see nationwide," Stoner said, adding that these proposals for accelerating the bay cleanup could set a new standard for curbing water pollution.
Likewise, Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called it "a great day for the bay." But with his Annapolis-based environmental group suing the EPA for not playing a stronger role in the bay cleanup to date, he cautioned that the "great intentions" expressed by the Obama administration need to be followed up with actions.
Valerie Connolly, spokeswoman for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said she needs time to absorb the many reports, but she cautioned that farmers make so little money that "any kind of regulation ... may be unfeasible." Bill Satterfield of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., contended that that Maryland's chicken farms already are "highly regulated."
About 480 of Maryland's 800 chicken farms - almost all on the Eastern Shore - applied this year for pollution permits under existing federal rules that dictate how the animals' manure must be collected and stored.
Jackson said EPA officials have not determined how many more farms the agency wants to regulate. Farmers have taken steps, largely voluntarily and with the help of federal and state funds, to reduce polluted runoff from their fields and feedlots already, she said, but they need to do much more.
To go with the EPA's plan to regulate more farms, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his department stands ready to spend $638 million over the next five years on payments to farmers and other incentives to get them voluntarily to take steps needed to control polluted runoff. Examples include fencing livestock out of streams and planting "cover" crops in winter that keep rain and snow from washing leftover fertilizer from fallow fields into streams.
Vilsack also said his department would direct federal funds to controlling farm runoff in areas where it's worst, ending the current practice of spreading the money around the region.
"We want to target the resources where they will do the most good," he said.
While trying to curtail agricultural pollution, Jackson and Vilsack said they want to ensure that farming remains viable because it produces locally raised foods and preserves open space and habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Meanwhile, Jackson said, EPA wants to do more to reduce the harm done to streams by storm water running off from new and existing communities - the only type of bay pollution that continues to increase as development spreads. The agency now requires states to regulate storm water in the largest and densest communities, but EPA's plan calls for requiring detailed pollution-control permits from "high-growth areas" as well. Such permits would spell out steps cities, towns and counties would have to take to reduce the amount of lawn fertilizer, pet droppings and other pollutants washing off lawns and pavement into storm drains and nearby streams.
An EPA official, speaking on background, said limiting the sale or application of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus may be one of the limits set under new storm-water rules being eyed by the agency. Mature lawns generally do not need phosphorus, he said, so the grass does not soak up that nutrient and it winds up being washed off into streams. Annapolis already bans phosphorus-containing lawn fertilizers, and a new Maryland law will require "low-phosphorus" fertilizer be sold in home stores by 2011.
The EPA's administrator cautioned that new regulations, such as those suggested in the plans released Thursday, can take years to write and put into place. She said the federal agency plans to press states now to do more to curb pollution under their control. And if a state does not do enough, she warned, the agency may use its rarely invoked legal influence to block a permit for some new or expanded business or development.
"The goal here is to use federal leadership and, frankly, federal muscle where necessary so states understand that the time of working slowly without accountability is over," she said.
Maryland's environment secretary, Shari Wilson, said the state's recently strengthened rules meant to curb runoff from development and from poultry farms should ease the impact of new federal actions. But some environmentalists are not so sure, arguing that state rules have not been that effective to date.
State natural resources secretary John Griffin, meanwhile, said he saw no need for greater federal involvement in regulating bay fisheries like crabs and oysters. One of the reports urges creation of a new "inter-jurisdictional bay-wide regulatory body" led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to set catch rules and take steps to protect and restore troubled bay fisheries. Maryland and Virginia have in years past differed over how best to regulate commercial fishing in the bay, though recently coordinated restrictions on crab harvest to rebuild the depleted population.
"What we really need out of NOAA is more resources and good science to help us in our deliberations," Griffin said. Beyond that issue, he called the federal plans for conserving more natural lands in the region "very promising."
Baltimore Sun reporters Larry Carson and Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.