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Chesapeake Bay Needs Science, Not Slogans

Progress on reducing the pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, North America's largest estuary, has been "significantly overstated," The Washington Post hyperventilated in a front-page story this week.

It seems that the allegedly erroneous estimates of pollution reduction were based on faulty computer modeling, not actual sampling of bay water. Politicians from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia were partially to blame, suggested the Post, as they were more concerned about saving themselves and their bureaucrat regulator buddies from environmentalist and media criticism than they were about "saving the bay" — the local mantra.

I don't doubt that local politicians and regulators have been quite happy to take credit for any sort of progress toward "saving the bay," whether real or imagined. But it is the wide-eyed public — manipulated by cynical environmentalists and their media allies — that is more blameworthy.

The public has made exceedingly unrealistic demands upon government officials by clamoring for "restoration" of the Chesapeake Bay. What does "restoration" really mean? Does it mean a return of the Chesapeake Bay and environs to pristine pre-Jamestown settlement conditions, circa 1607? That will be difficult to do given a current regional population numbering in the tens of millions that places tremendous commercial, agricultural, residential and recreational demands on bay resources.

Are 1900, 1950 or 2000 more reasonable baseline dates for "restoration?" Hardly. It really doesn't matter, in fact, what baseline timeframe is selected. "Restoration" will always be impossible because of continually growing and impossible-to-restrict uses and pressures placed on the Chesapeake Bay. Just like a 65-year-old person can't stop the aging process, much less go back to being an 18-year-old, we can't stop human and natural impacts on the Chesapeake or restore it to pre-civilization conditions.

This does not mean, however, that steps cannot be taken to reduce harmful impacts on the bay and extend its beauty and bounty for generations to come. Such potentially more realistic goals, however, will take a major change in mindset, one that no doubt will be opposed by environmental activists. Sound science and reasonable expectations are needed, not sloganeering (Save the Bay!) and unachievable eco-fantasies (e.g., "restoration").

One of the major challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay — and virtually all other such estuaries in heavily populated areas — is eutrophication, the loading of water from land runoff and air deposition with nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that contribute to algae growth and a subsequent decline in water quality. It was the alleged exaggeration of reductions in phosphorus and nitrogen loadings that was the focus of the Washington Post report.

The first thing to understand is that eutrophication is a natural process — it was even happening when Pocahontas paddled in the Chesapeake region's waters 400 years ago. There is no question that modern human activities (waste water discharges and agricultural run-off, for example) have significantly augmented always-occurring natural phosphorus and nitrogen loadings. But exactly how much and to what effect is largely unknown.

According to the water sample data reported in The Washington Post, manmade phosphorus and nitrogen loadings have increased in some areas of the bay, decreased in some areas, but for the most part don't seem to have changed since 1985. Given the significant increase in human activity and development in the Chesapeake Bay region over the last 20 years, it would seem that we are making progress, relatively speaking, in reducing manmade phosphorus and nitrogen loadings to the bay.

The question remains, however, how much lower, if at all, do manmade phosphorus and nitrogen loadings need to be reduced to prevent undesirable eutrophication? How much eutrophication is tolerable in the first place? These are questions to which no one seems to have satisfactory answers — short of the expected and knee-jerk, "eutrophication, bad/save the bay, good."

Local governments agreed in 1987 to reduce the amount of manmade nutrients flowing into the bay by 40 percent by the year 2000. The target reduction was subsequently reduced to 20 percent for nitrogen and 31 percent for phosphorus after officials decided to exclude emission from cars and certain other sources. These targets, however, are essentially arbitrary in nature. There's no hard scientific data and analysis demonstrating that reducing nutrient loading from manmade sources by 20 percent or 40 percent — or even 80 percent, for that matter — will or won't make a difference in bay eutrophication.

Chesapeake Bay policymakers just seem to be laboring in the dark, and establishing arbitrary goals in response to pressure from always-dubious environmental activists and other self-appointed Chesapeake Bay vigilantes.

The sooner we stop the "Save the Bay" eco-drama and adopt a more level-headed approach to tackling the bay's problems, the sooner we'll make genuine progress — indisputable even to The Washington Post

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).