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Wayne Mills: Lessons from the Chesapeake Bay cleanup are instructive for the Indian River Lagoon

This letter to the Editor by Wayne Mills originally appeared in the Indian River Press-Journal and the Stuart News on April 29, 2016.  Wayne is Special Advisor to the CWC. 

The watershed of the Chesapeake Bay extends from New York State to Virginia, and includes six states.  

I was fortunate to serve on the board of trustees of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation from 1994 to 2008 and as chairman from 1998 to 2005. I remain an honorary member.

As a new Florida resident, I soon realized the same root causes that had plagued the Chesapeake Bay for the past century were at work here in Florida along the Indian River Lagoon — namely, too many people generating too much wastewater, urban and suburban runoff, fertilizers from lawns and fertilizer and animal wastes from farms.

These activities have generated excessive nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments as the population has grown over the years.

Without proper environmental controls it sort of sneaks up on you until all of a sudden you find yourself at the tipping point with dead zones, toxic algae outbreaks and marine fisheries dying. At that point, it’s very expensive to make the necessary corrections.

With leadership from our federal representatives and the governors and legislatures of both Maryland and Virginia, we were able address the Chesapeake’s problems. We got financial commitments of $1 billion each to upgrade major sewage treatment plants that accounted for 24 percent of the pollution entering the bay. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was formed in 1967, so you can see it was a long time coming when these corrections were made from roughly 2002 to 2010.

It was around 2006 when it became apparent that the balance of the problem — consisting of runoff from agriculture and urban-suburban stormwater discharges — was not sufficiently diminishing to reach our clean water goals. It became necessary to sue the Environment Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act and the accompanying Total Daily Maximum Loads (which are pollution limits) to achieve success.

The EPA settled the case with us, and we began working on a six-state plan called the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint. The blueprint put the six states and the District of Columbia on a pollution diet to share the reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments necessary to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Soon after the plan was published, EPA was sued by the American Farm Bureau, the Fertilizer Institute and other agricultural entities that opposed the blueprint. The District Court found in EPA’s favor and, following that victory, the plaintiffs filed an appeal and were joined by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and 21 other states. The Appeals Court found overwhelmingly in our favor, indicating the blueprint was an excellent example of the collaboration required between the states and EPA to reach the Clean Water Act goals.

Then the plaintiffs took the plan before the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to have it overturned. On Feb. 29, the Supreme Court denied taking the case and, in doing so, let the Appeals Court decision stand as the law of the land.

It was a major victory for clean water in America and for the Chesapeake Bay.

One of the lessons learned was, oftentimes, the opposition refuses to consider doing their part. It was unfortunate that it took litigation to make progress, but it became necessary when voluntary actions were not taken to get the job done.

With widespread citizen support to save the bay, Chesapeake Bay Foundation was able to garner legislative support for funds for stormwater treatment, buffer strips for agriculture and various building and development controls near the waters of the Chesapeake.

This is a job that can be done for Florida when the public understands the risks to human health, the waterways and home values.

The media in the Chesapeake Bay area can be credited for providing invaluable support for clean water and in educating the public on what was at risk. I applaud Treasure Coast Newspapers and Florida Today for taking up the charge to ensure clean water in Florida and for holding elected officials accountable.

Wayne Mills, of North Hutchinson Island, is former chairman of the board of trustees of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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