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Chesapeake Born: The Grand Experiment

IMG_0409Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.

I have enjoyed the Chesapeake Bay for more than 60 years and written about it for nearly 40. Early in my reporting career, I realized I was covering more than pollution or the vicissitudes of fish and crabs.

I had a front row seat to a grand experiment. We had taken a world-class ecosystem and screwed it up big time, then begun an unprecedented effort to restore it, even as millions more people moved into the watershed.

For better or for worse, we were going to learn some lessons; important for the whole planet. Could an affluent, technologically sophisticated society forge a healthy and sustainable relationship with the rest of nature?

No one thought it would be easy or quick. Yet few thought we’d get this far with restoration still so far away, with so little certainty of meeting already postponed goals.

Much has gone in the right direction, offsetting somewhat the increased environmental pressures from a watershed-wide population that has doubled since I was a kid.

And looking at what’s worked suggests common threads.

Air pollution, a big source of Bay pollution, has decreased. Sewage treatment technology has improved to remove dramatically more nitrogen and phosphorus from waste.

Striped bass rebounded handsomely from dangerously low levels, and it seems within our grasp to operate blue crab harvests sustainably.

Lessons learned? The federal Clean Air Act has real teeth and good science behind it, and pretty good enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency across state boundaries. The federal Clean Water Act has enough authority over sewage treatment to prod polluting municipalities, with the water and sewer bills users pay providing reliable funding.

With striped bass, strong federal oversight was critical to a species that mostly spawned in the Chesapeake but was overfished throughout its multistate migratory range.

With bass and blue crabs, funding good science that included excellent long-term monitoring provided politicians with the backing they needed to make controversial decisions to curtail harvests.

So fund the science, collect the data, strengthen regulatory agencies and federal oversight, then set real deadlines with real penalties. Next election, ask your candidates where they stand on those issues.

More regulation isn’t the sole key to Bay progress. Across the watershed, 20 percent of all land has been protected as open space using tools ranging from voluntary easements that give up development rights to outright purchase.

There’s also room for using market forces to protect the environment. Removing subsidies that encourage polluting behavior would work—and save money. Assigning economic value to nature’s services that purify air and water would send the correct (higher) price signals to pavers and deforesters.

When Bay restoration began, we heard a lot about “win-win”—what was good for the Bay would also prove good for the bottom line.

But the pushback from two of the biggest Bay problem areas—agriculture and sprawl development—has blown away such easy assumptions. The development industry and its allies continue to own local decision-making bodies where most land-use decisions are made—and made badly for the public interest.

Farmers, who contribute the most pollution to the Bay—and the most cost-effective pollution to curtail—enjoy a good-guy image with the voting public. Most really are good guys who have done many good things for the environment, although too often these are not well-targeted at Bay restoration.

To both sprawl and farm runoff we have workable and affordable solutions but not the politics or laws that are up to the task.

More straight talk to the public and farmers is in order. There’s a disconnect between the great deal the science says needs remedying and the “mission accomplished” one often hears from agricultural bureaucracies.

But, in the fourth decade of Bay-saving, we are at least working on almost all of the pieces of the puzzle, from pollution to overfishing to protecting habitat.

The bad news is that governments and environmental groups in the watershed continue treating growth—indefinitely expanding both the human economy and population—as an “uncontrollable” environmental impact, which can only be accommodated, never rethought.

Is the grand experiment then doomed? I’m not wise enough to say.

I have grown wise enough to spend every moment I can outside exploring this still marvelous region from Cooperstown, N.Y., to the Virginia capes. If readers get one thing from these columns, I would hope for this: Get outdoors, explore and learn what it would mean to live sustainably in this place.

—Tom Horton

The above "Chesapeake Born" column appears monthly in the Bay Journal News Service. Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.


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