There's a court battle brewing over the Chesapeake Bay and how to clean it up. On one side is the Environmental Protection Agency and numerous conservation groups. On the other, major players from the farming and construction industries. Now, states that aren't even in the watershed have joined the fray.
All the parties involved say they want to reach the same goal, a clean bay. But they have different interpretations of what the law allows.
The Chesapeake Bay is well-known for its beauty and the delicious seafood it produces.
"My wife and I, when we moved here, that was one of the things that attracted us to this area is being close to the water and the bay is terrific," said Jim Birchfield of Laurel, MD.
But underneath all of that beauty, the bay is dangerously polluted and has been for decades. The top three culprits: nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. They're largely the result of sewage and stormwater runoff carrying pollutants from rivers and streams to the bay.
"I would pull the boat back in to the Magothy River and drop anchor and swim around and when you'd come out, if you had any clothing on that was white, you would see grease scum on it from the oils floating on the water," Birchfield said.
Over the past 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency and states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed signed several agreements vowing to work together to rehabilitate the bay. But repeatedly, the water quality goals were not met.
In May 2009, President Obama intervened and signed an executive order directing the EPA to lead efforts to clean up the bay and come up with a Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Will Baker, president and CEO of the non-profit Chesapeake Bay Foundation , said it's finally a plan that will work.
"The plan calls for all of us to do better with sewage treatment, for industries to clean up, for pollution from urban areas and suburban areas to be mitigated, and yes, for the agricultural community to be part of it," Baker said.
In December 2010, the EPA released the blueprint , which set limits for the maximum amount of pollutants allowed to go into the bay each day. It also set specific pollution reduction requirements for the six states in the watershed and Washington D.C.. Every two years, the EPA evaluates progress to make sure they're on target to have all of the measures in place by 2025.
"It's not a mandate from the federal government as the detractors assert, but rather the federal government saying to the states, here's what you need to achieve by 2025. You can get there any way you want," Baker said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation disagrees. The group filed a lawsuit in January 2011 arguing that the blueprint violates the federal Clean Water act by giving the EPA too much authority over what it feels should be state and local decisions on land use and water quality.
It also fears the potential impact the EPA-set pollutant limits would have on watershed farmers. The National Association of Home Builders and five other agriculture groups later joined the suit.
"The court ruling would say, the states have some power left to adjust their plan in the future if they need to, that's all it would be," said Ellen Steen, general counsel and secretary for the Farm Bureau. "We want a clean bay, but we want a safety valve if the local pain is too great and we just don't know that yet."
A federal court judge upheld the EPA's plan in September, but the Farm Bureau appealed the decision, gaining support from attorneys general in 21 states . They fear that the federal government could take similar action regarding the clean-up of watersheds in their states.
"If EPA can, essentially hold the bullet, I mean, hold the gun to the head of the state and say, you have to achieve this number, no matter what, no matter what the cost, then it could do that, it could do that everywhere," Steen said. "And so the implications are tremendous."
An annual report card on the bay's health from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science gave the bay a C grade, the same as the previous year. It's up from a D+ and C- in previous years.
Researchers said certain rivers that feed into the bay are seeing positive improvement, due to stormwater runoff reduction strategies put in place and upgrades to sewage treatment plants in those areas. Still, they found rivers that drain mostly agricultural runoff are getting worse.
"The good news is the Chesapeake is getting better," Baker said. "But it's still a system dangerously out of balance. We've made real progress, and we can celebrate that, but the challenges that remain are daunting."
Win or lose, Steen said farmers have been and will continue to do their part to reduce pollution in the bay. People who live, work and play on the bay say everyone loses if we don't do everything we can to protect the area's most precious national
"For the people that live here and come here because of the closeness to the water, and the beauty of the bay, it would be a disaster for it not to get cleaned up to go the other direction and get worse instead of get better," Birchfield said.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will hear arguments in this case in July, with a ruling expected before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, a number of major cities, states, conservation groups and law professors have thrown their support behind the EPA .