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Boosting the Bay
Lawmakers have opportunity to add to the cleanup effort's gathering momentum

Date published: 1/14/2013

THE BUDGET that Gov. McDonnell is submitting to the General Assembly includes $217 million in amendments to continue Virginia's work in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. A significant commitment, it would nearly triple the sum provided a year ago in the initial version of the 2013-14 biennial budget. At that time, the governor was criticized for short-changing recovery obligations. He listened.

So it's especially important this year that lawmakers make good on bay-related issues to maintain the recent flow of good news about the estuary.

The new year brought with it word that the bay's health has improved slightly during the past two years. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2012 State of the Bay Report compares various aspects of the Chesapeake ecosystem--13 indicators in all--from fish and shellfish levels and submerged grasses to water clarity and all forms of pollution. Up one point since 2010 and four points since 2008, this year's score is 32 on a 100-point scale, with 70 being the foundation's plausible goal.

The bay's iconic blue crab has rebounded to populations not seen in 20 years, thanks to management practices tailored to protect females. Alas, the species' numbers remain at historic lows by healthy bay standards set in generations past.

Oysters are also rebounding--but, again, in relative terms. Virginia harvested only 79,600 bushels of the yummy bivalves in 2005, while collecting 236,200 bushels in 2011. A big jump, but one that compares with 4 million bushels in the 1958-59 harvest.

Oysters have a reciprocal arrangement with the rest of the bay, since each one filters 50 gallons of water a day: The cleaner the bay, the more oysters; the more oysters, the cleaner the bay.

Another of the ecozone's cleaning agents is the menhaden. As a commercially coveted species, it is the only fishery managed by the General Assembly and not by state marine-resources experts. With overfishing posing a threat to the oily-fleshed fish, it's crucial that lawmakers agree to legislate the 20 percent annual harvest reduction recently urged by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. A bill to do just that, HB 1840, was filed last week.

Virginia has lagged other states in placing harvest limits on the menhaden, whose population is threatened by the very industry, Omega Protein of Reedville, that depends on it for the manufacture of livestock feed and human dietary supplements.

Make no mistake: Virginia and the other bay states cannot meet all the challenges facing the Chesapeake without dependable and vigorous federal support. Whether it's farmers who must buffer their waterways and corral livestock manure, or municipalities that must upgrade sewage plants and rein in stormwater runoff, reaching the EPA's mandates and goals will cost plenty.

In any case, the recent progress should only foster greater cooperation among all involved parties. World peace may be a chimera, but a healthy Chesapeake Bay is excitingly imaginable.