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Lessons learned (or not) about the Chesapeake Bay

Environmental IssuesEnvironmental PollutionPoliticsU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyEnvironmental PoliticsRepublican PartyU.S. Congress

"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 foundation.

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 been two decades. Time to revisit.

•The myth of "voluntary": It was clear in 2003 that the voluntary nature of the bay restoration effort 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 [the EPA] has done anywhere else," said Roy Hoagland, a former longtime top official of the Bay Foundation and 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 Republicans in Congress vow to weaken the agency.

•Accountability: Much positive has happened in the last decade or so, including a science-based annual report card from the University of Maryland on the health of the bay and its tributaries; better-defined goals for everything from oysters to open space; and the recognition that air pollution has a significant impact on the bay. All six states in the bay watershed are now part of the restoration effort.

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, Mr. Hoagland said, "continues to be our most miserable failure ... we have yet to find the political will to control sprawl development."

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

Republican leadership on the environment is abysmal. Democrats are better, but they are no longer pushed by Republicans to hold the line or improve. At state levels, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have shifted back and forth from Democratic to Republican governors; and it was a Republican in Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., 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," Mr. Baker wrote in 1991, "our optimism is tempered by an all too predictable reaction to a faltering economy." 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, Mr. Hoagland stated, has not been the bottleneck stopping more progress. He suggested it might become the bottleneck as we confront ever-increasing costs 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.

The state of 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 and the use of cover crops to cut farm runoff; has shown how development harms stream health; and has 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," Mr. 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 which avoid questions about limits to growth, or to diets that could drastically reduce agricultural pollution.

Lessons learned? School's not over yet.

Tom Horton, a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun, has written several books about the Chesapeake Bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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