RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A report by a panel of scientists and environmentalists raises new questions about the ambitious plan to restore the Chesapeake Bay, including the effectiveness of tracking pollution-reduction goals and how climate change could alter in the bay’s recovery effort.

The report Wednesday by the National Research Council adds new layers of complexity to what has been billed as the largest water pollution control project in U.S. history, including six states and the District of Columbia within the 64,000-square-mile watershed. Some 18 million people live within an area that will attempt to reduce pollution in the bay.

While the nearly 200-page report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency paints a largely favorable picture of the latest effort to clean the estuary, it critically evaluates strategies to achieve that goal by 2025.

It says, for example, that nearly all the states have insufficient information to assess their progress, hampering their ability to make midcourse corrections.

It also cautions about “overly optimistic expectations” that could lead to public frustration over the progress of the cleanup.

“Sustaining public and political support for the program will require clear communication of these uncertainties and lag times and program strategies to better quantify them,” the report states.

The bay’s restoration is being led by the EPA following decades of failure by the states to clean the bay, which is afflicted with pollution and runoff from farms, city streets and suburban sprawl. With the backing of President Barack Obama, the EPA has put the bay on a “pollution diet” to limit the flow of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from fouling its waters, creating dead zones where marine life is snuffed.

Proponents of the cleanup strategy said the report will complement a plan that ultimately could cost in the range of $30 billion.

“The report makes it clear there is no silver bullet,” Hilary Falk of the Choose Clean Water Coalition said in a statement. “It takes responsibility on the part of governments — federal, state and local — as well as residents, farmers and businesses.”

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the report endorses the current approach over past efforts. “But unless there are consequences that follow if the states fail to deliver on those commitments, the milestones will be ineffective guideposts for restoration,” he said in a statement.

The council report, in fact, states that the EPA hasn’t been clear on the consequences of not meeting pollution reduction deadlines.

Kenneth H. Reckhow, chairman of the study panel and a professor at Duke University, said the EPA can mandate compliance “but it’s not been clearly stated that the carrot-and-the-stick approach is looming.”

The EPA bay plan has encountered resistance among farm groups that contend the agency is overreaching its authority, and local officials in Virginia have questioned the costs to their residents of upgrading treatment plants. Officials have estimated the plan’s cost at $7 billion to $10 billion in Virginia alone.

The report made it clear as well that the plan is likely to change over time to account for climate change, population growth and agriculture shifts.

“Further and continued study of future scenarios is warranted to help the bay partners adapt to a changing future,” the authors wrote.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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