Volume 12, Issue 30 ~ July 22-28, 2004
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Clean Water by Computer Model Is Not So Clean

There’s always been something a little fishy about the Chesapeake Bay Program’s rosy forecasts for the Chesapeake Bay — especially if you’re a fish, crab, underwater plant or any variety of aquatic life trying to survive the onslaught of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

For a long time, we were told that the effort toward reducing the flow of those Bay-choking nutrients was “on target.”

Then one day a few years back, Bay Program director Bill Matuszeski, on the verge of retiring, told Bay Weekly in a moment of candor that it looked like we would fall short of reaching the goal of a 40-percent reduction of the supernutrients by 2000.

Now, according to the Washington Post, the estimates of progress over the years were significantly overstated because they were based on a flawed computer model rather than on actual water samples.

The U.S. Geological Survey, one of the most trusted agencies in government, found little decline in the nitrogen and phosphorus flow from most Bay rivers in its monitoring from the late 1980s through last year.

That’s a troubling revelation on several counts. Had we been aware of these minimal improvements all along, we might have been able to muster earlier the political will for bold and expensive fixes like the new flush tax.

We would be much further along in the goal of fixing faulty sewage treatment plants, and it would have been less painful at a time when state budgets were healthier.

Likewise, we could have been more forceful in regulating the Eastern Shore’s poultry industry — another major source of nitrogen pollution — before the current anti-regulatory bias arrived in Annapolis and Washington.

We blame ourselves as much as the Bay Program. The Geological Survey is typically open with its research, and enterprising journalists could have taken the initiative to compare reality with the illusions from the Bay Program’s computer screens.

We don’t think it’s useful to condemn the Bay Program, the alliance of the federal government and Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The program, run by the Environmental Protection Agency, performs many valuable educational services toward the goal of watershed planning.

Nonetheless, we are disappointed that we have been deceived, and it’s unclear why the bureaucrats who run the program were compelled to reflect progress that had not occurred. Were they trying to avoid admission of failure and unpleasant choices? Were they taken in by the allure of colorful computer technology?

Whether in fighting war, terrorism or pollution, governments unwilling to tell the truth lose trust — and often the battle at hand.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.