Channeling Childhood for a Cleaner Chesapeake

Commentary by Sara Kaplaniak

One of the joys of parenting involves repeating your own mom and dad, as when you say, “Clean up that mess!” Then a disagreement ensues between siblings until mom intervenes.

Oddly enough, this came to mind while reading about Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. The scenario’s the same; it just involves a different cast of characters.

Instead of children overlooking their toys scattered about the house, we have farmers, builders, municipalities and homeowners failing to notice that certain land-based activities compromise the Chesapeake Bay. Instead of a mom called in to mediate, we have the judicial system.

Because time-outs don’t work in the world of politics and government, bickering about cleaning up the Bay ends up in the courts. For example, in 2009, 54municipalities sued the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in an effort to overturn the state’s Bay cleanup plan. Last year, the National Association of Home Builders filed suit against new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules aimed at curbing the flow of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment into the Bay. The American Farm Bureau Federation, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and other farming groups are also suing to block the EPA rules.

In response, environmental groups have intervened in court on behalf of the EPA for enforcing the Clean Water Act, which requires states to establish pollution limits, or “Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL),” for bodies of water not meeting water quality standards. The EPA did just that last December. In the absence of satisfactory progress in restoring the Chesapeake Bay, the agency exercised its authority and instituted a TMDL for the Bay and its tributaries

The EPA’s TMDL outlines how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution the six Bay states can contribute to the streams and rivers that flow into the Bay. The limits aim to reduce these pollutants by 25 percent by 2025. The EPA’s plan also establishes milestones for progress and consequences for failure in meeting them. States and localities must specify in detail how they will enforce and achieve reductions.

But it doesn’t have to be this bureaucratic and burdensome. We live in an age of mind-blowing technology and creative thinking – a powerful combination that is taking root in my state of Pennsylvania where the Susquehanna River serves as a primary polluter of the Bay.

For example, Pennsylvania has proposed a Baywide Agricultural Technology Fund to assist farmers, who represent a primary source of targeted pollutants, with employing innovative improvements that reduce pollution harming the Bay. One emerging technology this fund would support separates nitrogen and phosphorous from manure before runoff enters the watershed. Another proposes to convert this waste into energy. These technologies would help farmers meet government regulations during tough times, reduce dependence on oil and gas and create a cleaner, greener world for all of us.

Additionally, Pennsylvania hosts its second round of Nutrient Credit Trading auctions this fall. Nutrient trading, a market-based financial mechanism for reducing pollution, provides incentives for taking actions that go beyond statutory or regulatory requirements. Those who achieve this goal can trade their “nutrient reduction credits” with others who may need a little more time to meet federal, state or local requirements.

These transactions are handled by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST), working in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Protection. PENNVEST acts as a clearinghouse for credits, entering into contracts to both buy and sell credits at annual auctions. This “cap and trade” approach has gained steam around the world in reducing carbon emissions released into the air and may also have a role to play in making Chesapeake Bay waters a little cleaner. That’s because “green” solutions like trading nutrient credits costs less than engineering solutions that get passed on to taxpayers.

Simpler approaches to cleaning up the Bay work too, as seen with “Treevitalize,” a public-private partnership formed in Pennsylvania to restore tree cover in metropolitan areas. Not only do trees create a prettier and more peaceful world, they also filter water and air and control storm water and erosion. Without a doubt, more trees in the watershed’s urban and suburban neighborhoods would benefit the Bay.

So why does the EPA need to regulate what we all desire – clean water for drinking, swimming, fishing, supporting wildlife, nourishing livestock, and promoting general health and spiritual renewal? Why do regulations and lawsuits outweigh creative solutions?

In answer, I need look no further than my own home where my young children are more likely to point fingers or endure timeouts before taking messes into their own hands. I can only hope that as grownups, and our future decision makers, they will eventually take responsibility for their actions in intelligent and creative ways. We might consider leading the way.

Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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