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Chesapeake Bay is the nations largest estuary, and its in poor health. Thats despite decades of promises to clean it up. Today, the federal government announced the outlines of a new effort to help restore the bay.

NPRs Richard Harris explains.

RICHARD HARRIS: The bay is in trouble largely because its being overwhelmed with nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments from agriculture runoff as well as from the 17 million people who live in the bays watershed. One of the biggest victims of this has been the bays once-thriving oysters. In a telephone news conference, Peyton Robertson from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said restoring the oysters is key to the new bay recovery effort.

Mr. PEYTON ROBERTSON (Director, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): We want to coordinate with Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to recover historical oyster bars and establish self-sustaining oyster-reef sanctuaries in 20 key tributaries throughout the bay by the year 2020.

HARRIS: Ultimately, the states and federal government will need to figure out how to reduce runoff into the bay. That means paying more attention to farms, which are the single biggest sources of nutrient-laden water. But better farm practices alone wont do the job. In fact, Environment Protection Agency official Chuck Fox says agricultural runoff has actually been improving somewhat.

Mr. CHUCK FOX (Senior Advisor, Environment Protection Agency): This is contrary to urban and suburban runoff loads which, in fact, are increasing in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

HARRIS: So, an effective strategy means getting states and local governments to pay more attention to new or rebuilt subdivisions and other development. Up until now, most of the bays restoration plans have been largely voluntary -loosely coordinated by Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and the city of Washington, D.C., which are all in the bays watershed. The new plan, ordered up this spring by President Obama, will give the federal government a much bigger role. Some in the region have worried this could amount to a federal takeover of the effort.

Mr. FOX: I would respectfully disagree with that characterization completely.

HARRIS: Again, Chuck Fox from the EPA.

Mr. FOX: It is our view that this is a new era of federal leadership, but it is also our view that we have to do this in close partnership with state and local governments, as well as those in the private sector.

HARRIS: States are expected to come up with new regulations and measures to heal the bay, but if those fall short, the federal government will step in with new rules of its own. The plan is still in draft form. It is a big step up from the volunteer efforts of the past two decades. And Bill Dennison at the University of Marylands Center for Environmental Science says its a welcome one.

Dr. BILL DENNISON (University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science): This is exciting times for Chesapeake Bay. Its kind of a super-sized restoration program. And I think it represents an opportunity to take the best-studied bay in the world into the best-managed bay in the world.

HARRIS: One feature of the plan is that the states and federal government will review their progress every two years, and not simply wait as the restoration deadline of 2025 draws near.

Dr. DENNISON: We have defined goals and measurable progress and realistic time frames. Were not talking about what were going to do in five or 10 years -outside the political life cycle of any particular politician - but were talking about what we can do in a couple years.

HARRIS: Now, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been the regions leading advocate for restoring the bay. Roy Hoagland at the foundation says the newly unveiled plan neatly lays out all the things that need to be done, but hes not entirely happy.

Mr. ROY HOAGLAND (Chesapeake Bay Foundation): What was disappointing about this federal strategy is the lack of specificity. For example, it talks about developing new regulations for better managing urban and suburban storm water. It doesnt have any details of what that better management might or might not be.

HARRIS: Those all-important details still need to be worked out.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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