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Chesapeake Born: Bay Saving Lessons Learned, Looking Back

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Posted on November 27, 2012

Environmental Commentary by Tom Horton

“Saving the Chesapeake Bay is a test; if we pass we get to keep the planet,” wrote Chesapeake Bay Foundation president, Will Baker, in the foreword to a book I wrote about 20 years ago for the CBF.

The Bay, on the doorstep of the nation’s capital, polluted by all modern humans do, was as good a place as any to learn if humans could exist sustainably with the rest of nature.

What have we learned since that book, “Turning The Tide,” was published in 1991? In a revised, 2003 edition I set out six “Lessons Learned” that looked back over the previous decade.

Then, the “lessons” seemed mostly that we still had a lot to learn.

Now it’s two decades; time to revisit.

Myth of Voluntary: It was clear in 2003 that the voluntary nature of the bay restoration was flawed. Our best successes had been the odd instances where we banned something, from using phosphate detergents to catching rockfish.

Only in the last few years was the voluntary model officially abandoned, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposing a mandatory pollution diet on the states.

The EPA’s action “represents the biggest progress we’ve made in the last decade...goes far beyond what (EPA) has done anywhere else,” said Roy Hoagland, a longtime top official of the Bay Foundation, now a private consultant.

It will be critical to further strengthen the EPA’s hand, as local governments and states bridle at the costs of meeting water quality obligations, and as the Republican leadership in Congress vows to weaken the agency.

Accountability: Much positive has happened in the last decade or so — a science-based annual report card on the health of the bay and tributaries from the University of Maryland; better defined goals for everything from oysters to open space; and the inclusion of air pollution as a significant impact on the bay.

Agriculture, a leading source of bay pollution, is becoming more accountable, though this remains a work in progress; a lesson not wholly learned.

Stormwater regulations have taken a leap forward, although the inspection and enforcement that will make them work lag badly.

Management of growth, Hoagland said, “continues to be our most miserable failure...we have yet to find the political will to control sprawl development.”

All six states in the bay watershed are now part of the restoration effort.

Leadership: Politics at the national level are even more partisan on the environment than it was during the 1990s — and even then environmentalists spent too much time playing defense when they needed progress.

Republican leadership is abysmal, environmentally. Democrats are better, but no longer pushed by Republicans to hold the line or improve. At state levels, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have shifted back and forth among Democrat and Republican governors; and it was a Republican in Maryland, Robert Ehrlich, who gets credit for funding major sewage treatment upgrades.

A conclusion I made in 2003 rings even truer now: “The environmental community needs to rethink how to build a consensus for the bay that reaches well beyond its own members.” The environmental focus remains too narrow, too vulnerable to unfounded charges that it kills jobs and serves only an elite.

“As we go to press (in 1991) our optimism is tempered by an all too predictable reaction to a faltering economy,” Baker wrote. And in 2012 we still hear that the bay must wait until the economy heals.

Money: We have spent billions on the bay and need to spend more billions. But money, Hoagland stated, has not been the bottleneck stopping more progress.

He suggested it might become the bottleneck as we confront ever more expense with sewage and stormwater retrofits, where we are into areas of diminishing returns for our dollar.

We must look harder at removing taxpayer subsidies for growth and other activities that cost society money to offset their polluting effects, and also include the real costs of pollution in the prices we pay for doing business.

Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator, a pilot program that subtracts environmental costs from economic growth, is a start on this.

Good Science: Science has led to better blue crab management; the use of cover crops to cut farm runoff; showed how development harms stream health, and led to (slowly) regulating manure to control phosphorus runoff.

But the EPA still lacks a coherent national policy on nitrogen, the bay’s main pollutant. Federal subsidies for ethanol from corn increase nitrogen runoff, and don’t reduce energy use. Nor is farm runoff elsewhere under federal scrutiny like here. Our agriculture needs a level playing field.

Defining Real Progress: We need “the guts to make fundamental changes,” Baker wrote in 2003. In 2012, most progress still relies on tweaking technologies like sewage treatment, smokestack emissions and stormwater retention devices — all good, but avoid questions about limits to growth, or to diets that could reduce agricultural pollution dramatically.

Lessons learned? School’s not over yet.

Tom Horton has written extensively about Chesapeake Bay for three decades. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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