By Albert Oetgen, Managing Editor NBC News Washington
The Chesapeake Bay occupies a vital spot in the fabric of American history and folklore. Twenty-five years ago, in a State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Bay a "national treasure."
Its strategic position has been the objective of warring nations; its native bounty mesmerized naturalists long before the first Europeans set foot on its shores; its complex social and economic life is the inspiration for passionate essayists and critical novelists.
But the Bay is in trouble, and it has been for years.
The physical degradation of the giant estuary, the sources of which are spread haphazardly throughout a 64,000-square-mile watershed, has horrified two generations of Americans who have grown up with the modern environmental movement.
In 1980, responding to 13 years of prodding by the private Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the states in the Bay watershed formed a commission with the federal government to clean up the waterway and its tributaries. Public officials and private activists spent the next few years forging an agreement that outlined specific goals. A pact was in place by the mid-80s.
But 25 years later, by many measures, the Bay is worse off than it was when the agreement was put in place, primarily because the scores of local, state and federal boards and agencies involved in the cleanup have failed to coordinate their efforts effectively.
In May, the Obama administration launched a new effort "to restore the health, heritage, natural resources and social and economic value" of the Bay.
Mr. Obama signed an executive order on May 12, and representatives from the affected states met at Mt. Vernon, on the Potomac, to begin the cleanup anew. The order established a multi-agency Federal Leadership Committee, and instructed officials at seven federal agencies to submit preliminary cleanup plans by September 12.
NBC News will follow the cleanup effort and prepare reports between now and September that outline how things got the way they are, with emphasis on specific state, local and federal decisions that have contributed to Bay pollution in the 25 years since the official cleanup effort began. Other reports will focus on cleanup techniques that have achieved varying degrees of success in that same period, and innovative ideas that promise to make things better in the future.
VIDEO: "Saving the Chesapeake Bay": In the first part of our series, NBC's Wendy Reiger reports on the mixed results of 30 years of rescue efforts.
There is no shortage of commitment to the Bay cleanup. Whether the political will to sustain the cleanup is different in 2009 than it was in 1980 is a question left to another generation to answer.
But today, a larger issue looms over Bay restoration, and the entire planet: Global Warming. Mr. Obama's order requires federal officials to assess the negative effect that climate change has had on the Bay environment, and develop a strategy to reduce that effect.
Climate change was not part of the Bay cleanup calculus in 1980. A generation ago, worldwide environmentalists had not marshaled the effort that now exists to reverse the effects of global warming. The renewed Chesapeake Bay cleanup can serve as a guide to that larger global campaign.
The shortfalls of the first Bay cleanup campaign contain vital lessons for the worldwide community. Without cooperation, coordination and sustained commitment, any environmental cleanup effort will falter and ultimately fail.
For the activists who successfully lobbied for the new Chesapeake cleanup campaign, saving the Bay, this time around, is a model for saving the earth itself.