Bay Journal

Bay Commission’s united front has led Chesapeake cleanup effort

In its 25 year history, the panel has played a significant role in every major restoration achievement.

  • By Karl Blankenship on March 01, 2006
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Raising the public’s awareness of the Chesapeake and its watershed has always been a major concern of the of the commission.

It was 1980, many years since the infamous oyster wars, but even so, the new bi-state partnership between Virginia and Maryland got off to an inauspicious start. Representatives from both states—almost all unfamiliar with each other—were gathered at the first meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Commission when one man staggered in drunk, put his head down on the meeting table and began to snore. The Virginians fumed, and so did the Marylanders.

Tensions had always been high. Lord Baltimore had barely started his colony when the two neighbors nearly came to blows after a Virginia trader, ignoring Maryland sovereignty, set up a trading post on Kent Island. The states had also argued, sometimes fought, over fishing rights and control of the Potomac River.

Now, they were meeting for the first time as partners in a new legislative commission that would determine how to respond to a comprehensive, multiyear EPA study to be released in 1983 on the alarming decline of the Chesapeake Bay, and the meeting was being disrupted by a drunk. Finally, the mystery man picked up his notebooks and left before the meeting’s first break. It was then that the two state delegations discovered that he was not even part of the commission, and had simply come to the wrong room for another conference in the same hotel.

“This certainly solidified the relationship between Maryland and Virginia,” recalled Torrey Brown, a member of the Maryland General Assembly at the time who helped to create the new panel. “We all wanted to know who this guy was. Nobody knew each other. They thought he was one of us, and we thought he was one of them.”

As the commission marks its 25th anniversary, “us versus them” is a thing of the past. Joined by Pennsylvania in 1985, the commission has spurred some of the most significant steps forward in Chesapeake restoration, becoming an internationally respected model for a regional partnership dedicated to reviving a vast, shared waterway. Finding the right model was no easy task.

Once the EPA study was under way, leaders began to realize that there was no interstate forum to receive it—each state would have to respond in its own way. In 1977, Sen. John Caroll Byrnes of Maryland wrote to Sen. J. Harry Michael of Virginia, suggesting a bi-state partnership. This began a two-year debate about how such an arrangement might work.

Not everyone was convinced it would, but after models from around the country were examined, it was finally determined that what the Bay region needed was an entity focused on legislative policy—laws and budgets. It’s a pragmatic approach that has achieved results.

Commission members have pushed for legislation that is responsible for major nutrient reductions in the states, including the phosphate detergent ban and laws requiring nutrient management plans for most farms in the watershed. They have led efforts to improve fisheries management, including the first bi-state agreement to regulate Baywide blue crab catches. They tallied the cost of the Bay cleanup—and analyzed how it could be done most cost-effectively.

“Not only has the Chesapeake Bay Commission played a part in our successes over the last 25 or 30 years, it has been at the center of every major achievement that has been made, whether it was born here, or hatched and nurtured,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, at a recent commission meeting.

The commission, itself, has no regulatory power. Its membership includes seven representatives from each state, including five lawmakers, a cabinet-level secretary and a citizen representative. Its power comes from bringing members from various jurisdictions together to identify common problems. When they take that information home, they can encourage their legislative colleagues to take action.

“We recognized from the beginning that each state has its own set of economic and social conditions that have an impact on the Bay,” said retired Virginia state Sen. Joseph Gartlan, who was the first commission chairman. “In the end, each legislature can do what it wants to do, or can do, within the constraints of its own constitution, its own relationship with local governments and its existing programs and policies. We never seek to dictate to one another. And as a result, I think we are more successful in forging common approaches.”

Without the commission, there might be no cleanup effort.

In 1983, when the EPA study identifying problems facing the Bay was wrapped up, the commission was host to a conference that brought together the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the EPA administrator and the mayor of the District of Columbia to consider the report’s findings. The conference culminated in the signing of the original Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which created the cooperative state-federal Bay Program partnership.

“If it had not been for that conference, we wouldn’t have had the Bay Program,” said Tayloe Murphy, who served 22 years on the commission, first as a Virginia lawmaker, and later as the state’s secretary of natural resources. “Without the commission, we would never have had the 1983 Bay Agreement.”

The commission, along with the governors, the mayor and EPA administrator, has a seat on the Chesapeake Executive Council, which guides the Bay restoration effort.

The commission was again a signatory to the second Bay Agreement in 1987, which included the first commitments to reduce nutrients, control growth and development, and improve fisheries management. Thirteen years later, it was a leader in developing the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, with its more than 100 commitments, including a promise to clean up the Bay by 2010.

But it often flies under the public’s—and even the media’s—radar screen. When the council meets each year, the commission rarely gets attention—and typically isn’t even mentioned as an Executive Council member in news reports.

Despite the low profile, it has often been in the forefront of issues. Members took the lead in developing laws restricting the use of the pesticide TBT in boat paints when studies showed it was harmful to aquatic life. They sought federal approval for adding the enzyme phytase tp animal feed, which dramatically reduces phosphorus concentrations in chicken and hog waste.

The commission has also brought issues to the forefront that were overlooked by others, such as the threat to the Bay posed by sediment buildup behind Susquehanna River dams, and risks posed by releasing nonnative invaders in ship ballast water— issues that have garnered federal attention.

Unlike many other panels, the commission’s four yearly meetings are well- attended by its members, rather than their aides. Members gather in various locations around the watershed, typically convening Thursday afternoon and wrapping up around noon on Friday. The host member often highlights issues and activities going on in his or her district or state.

“For the legislators, having meetings all over the Bay was a fun thing to do,” said Margaret Johnson, the commission’s first executive director. “It really led to a lot of people wanting to host the meeting and show off their area. There is a collegiality that occurs when people become friends. They want to work together better. You can’t demonize somebody.”

Through the meetings, commission members become, in effect, the legislative branch experts on the Bay. They can educate their counterparts on Chesapeake initiatives without having to rely on the state executive branch, which may have different priorities. In fact, they can prod executive branch agencies to advance commission concerns.

For instance, when commission members were unhappy with the lack of fisheries cooperation between the states in the mid-1980s, they summoned representatives from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Not wanting to be taken by surprise, Verna Harrison, then working in DNR’s fisheries division, called Bill Pruitt, head of the VMRC—whom she had never spoken to—to coordinate their presentations. When they gave their talks to the commission, members seemed pleased.

“When I think about that, the commission accomplished exactly what it wanted to accomplish,” Harrison said. “Because from then on, Pruitt and I had a very good relationship. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye on everything, but what the commission did was begin convening people to work together. It is hard not to work with someone you have a relationship with.”

The commission still weighs in on fishery issues. In the late 1990s, amid concerns about declining crab populations, the commission took the lead in forming the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, made up of scientists, fishery stakeholders, fishery managers and others.

It forged a far-reaching consensus about how the Baywide crab population should be managed, and adopted the first ever management thresholds and targets for the Chesapeake’s most valuable commercial species—the amount of crabs that could be caught or die of natural mortality without threatening the overall population. All jurisdictions took action to curb fishing pressure to meet those targets, which was credited in stabilizing the Bay’s overall crab population.

“It had a remarkable impact,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “Blue crab management was hopelessly hung up in jurisdictional issues among the states and federal government. It brought some coherence to that.”

In recent years, the commission has been taking the Bay’s case to a larger stage: Congress. As far back as 1985, its members were seeking increased support for the region in the federal Farm Bill. But its liaisons with Congress have been ratcheted up in recent years. One of the commission’s four annual meetings now takes place in Washington, where members meet with their federal counterparts to push Bay measures.

That involvement was driven in part by a commission report in 2003, “The Cost of a Clean Bay,” which put the first-ever price tag ($18.7 billion) on meeting the major objectives of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. “As soon as we attached some real numbers to [the agreement], we knew that we had to reach into far bigger coffers,” said Ann Swanson, the commission’s executive director. “Logically, in addition to state budgets, it sent us toward the federal government for help.”

More recent reports from the commission have identified the six most cost-

effective nutrient control practices, five of which were agricultural. That led to more attention to the Farm Bill, including a new report, spearheaded by the commission, which outlined potential policy changes that could benefit the Bay. “It’s not all about dollars,” Swanson said of the commission’s work with Congress. “We know that we must also change the policies that drive decision making so that we can use what money is available to its absolute best advantage.”

While its stage has grown, the commission remains a modest operation. It has five staff members, and operates on a $570,000 budget that is covered by contributions from each member state.

What has changed is that, unlike that first 1980 meeting where their counterparts were nearly totally unfamiliar, members of the commission now know each others’ names, what states they are from and what issues they deal with. What they often don’t know—remarkable for an era of political polarization—is what political party their colleagues are from.

“There are no Democrats. There are no Republicans,” said Sen. Mike Waugh of Pennsylvania, who served as the commission’s chairman last year. “In fact, when I look around the table, I’m not sure that I could tell you the party affiliation of each and every member. And that speaks volumes. We don’t get into those discussions on this commission.”

It is that type of partnership that will be critical if the problems that still face the Bay are ultimately to be solved, said Gartlan, the commission’s first chairman. “We can make the political decisions with this kind of cooperation, with this kind of understanding, and this kind of joint action,” he said. “To save the Bay, we must believe we can save it together. And if we don’t—if we are not together—the effort is senseless.”

25 Years of Leadership

Highlights from the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s history:

1980: The Chesapeake Bay Commission is formed after a two-year study and enabling legislation is passed in Virginia and Maryland.

1982: The commission works to resolve a regulatory void that opens when a court decision overturns nonresident commercial fishing license fees used by the states. Legislation developed and sponsored by the commission is enacted in 1983.

1983: The commission sponsors the “Choices for the Chesapeake” conference, which leads to the establishment of the Bay Program cleanup effort and the 1983 Bay Agreement.

1984: The commission invites Pennsylvania to join, which it does in 1985.

1985-1989: Led by the commission’s state delegations, all three states adopt bans on phosphate detergent. The action is credited as the largest source of phosphorus reductions from wastewater treatment plants to date.

1987: The commission develops legislation, adopted by Maryland and Virginia, to restrict use of the pesticide TBT in boat paints because of its toxic effect on shellfish near marinas.

1987: The commission joins other Executive Council members in signing the 1987 Bay Agreement.

1988: The commission chairs drafting efforts for the Bay Program’s report, “Population Growth and Development in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to the Year 2020,” which highlighted the threat of development to the Bay.

1991: Commission members investigate the use of phytase in animal feed in the Netherlands and later petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow its use in the United States.

1993: Pennsylvania members win passage of the state’s Nutrient Management Act, the first law requiring nutrient management plans for large farms.

1995: The commission produces a report on the introduction of nonindigenous species to the Bay through ship ballast water, spurring state and federal action.

1996: The commission convenes the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, which works to coordinate Baywide blue crab management.

2000: The commission joins other Executive Council members in signing the Chesapeake 2000 agreement.

2002: The commission produces the first-ever cost estimates for implementing the Chesapeake 2000 agreement in its report, “The Cost of a Clean Bay.”

2004: Recognizing a huge shortfall in funding, the commission publishes “Cost-Effective Strategies for the Bay,” highlighting the six nutrient and sediment control actions that deliver the greatest “bang for the buck.”

2005: The commission leads an effort with five of the region’s governors to recommend improvements to conservation programs in the 2007 Farm Bill.

For information about the commission, or copies of its reports, visit its web site, http://www.chesbay.state.va.us

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and Executive Director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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