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Obama and the Chesapeake

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President-Elect Barak Obama has been famously channeling Abraham Lincoln as he prepares for his inauguration.

This weekend, he'll take a train, as Lincoln did, from Philadelphia to Washington. Next Tuesday, he'll be sworn in on the same bible that Lincoln used and enjoy a lunch in the Capitol of Lincoln's favorite dish of scalloped oysters. We can only hope that the 44th President's passage through Baltimore is less fraught than Lincoln's -- the 16th President had to be spirited through Charm City in the dead of night for fear of assassins.

Aboard his train from Philadelphia, Obama will cross the Susquehanna River and get a close look at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. He'll see pretty homes along the shoreline and boats under winter covers in the marinas. If it is a bright day, the Chesapeake will be gorgeous, as it usually is.

What the President-Elect will not see, and cannot be expected to appreciate looking out the train window, is just how troubled the Chesapeake is today compared to Lincoln's day. In 1861, the Bay was clean and at the height of its reputation as an immense protein factory, providing millions of bushels of oysters, blue crabs and rockfish to feed the growing population of the United States. Perhaps a million people lived in its vast, 64,000-square-mile watershed. Most were farmers.

Today, the harvests of crabs and oysters are a tiny fraction of their historic highs. The Chesapeake is polluted, its water cloudy and, in places, dying. A quarter-century after the first inter-state agreement to clean up the Bay, officials recently conceded that they cannot meet even the modest goals they set for themselves back in 1983. The best estimates are that it will take a decade and some $19 billion dollars to clean up the Bay and restore to anything close to what it was like in 1861.

When his train arrives in Washington, President-Elect Obama will be besieged by demands for money -- to fix the economic crisis, to put out the fires in the Middle East, to close Guantanamo, to rebuild America's crumbling infrastructure.

Restoring the Chesapeake understandably will be far down on that list of urgent priorities. But it deserves the new President's attention because it has reached, if not passed, the tipping point. Some 17 million people live in the watershed today, an estimated 170,000 more move in every year and developers are busy paving it over to accommodate them.

We have reached the point where only the Federal government can salvage the nation's largest and most important estuary and make it into a model restoration for the rest of the country. We now recognize that the voluntary efforts to clean up the Bay over the last 25 years have stalled but not stopped the deterioration. It is time to replace them with mandatory controls, beginning with revisions to the Clean Water Act. Congress will have to do that, and the President will have to push to get it done.

"Save the Bay," is the slogan on the bumper stickers that Barack Obama will see around his new home. Let's hope he adopts it as his own.

Terence Smith is a former correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer . He lives on the Chesapeake Bay. His website is

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