Loss of credibility could undermine Chesapeake cleanup effort
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Writing in the first half of the last century, sociologist Max Weber provided some useful thoughts on the difference between leadership asserted and leadership attained.
While anyone with power might assert leadership, to truly achieve this quality a person or group has to be vested with credibility by those who are being led. This thought has important implications for the current state of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.
The Chesapeake Bay Program and its partners are perilously close to losing their credibility. By claiming that they have achieved a measure of success toward restoring the Chesapeake and its tributaries in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, they run the risk of being compared to the W.C. Fields character who asks, “What are you going to believe—me, or your own eyes?”
And, by pursuing policies that clearly have little chance of success, the Bay Program undermines the general public’s faith that it is up to the job with which it has been entrusted.
While the Chesapeake Bay is not in as bad a shape as it might have been without a restoration effort, it is still dying. The dead zone (where there is no oxygen in the water) that used to be localized in the deep water of the mainstem is growing. Low dissolved oxygen continues to plague headwaters where fish spawn. In normal rainfall years, Bay grasses disappear. Microplankton populations are shifting toward species that are harmful to both fish and people. Many of the most important fish and shellfish stocks in the Bay are at historic lows, in large part because of poor public management of those resources.
And, while computer models purport to show declines in the flow of nutrients to the Bay, the monitoring data from the water column generally show little change in the concentrations of these nutrients.
With respect to Bay Program policies for achieving restoration, available funds are not being used in a manner that targets the problem of excess nutrient flows into the Bay.
If one were to go down the recently published list of Small Watershed Grants and estimate how many pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous these might keep out of the Bay, one would come up with a disappointingly small number.
What those grant funds buy instead is feel-good activities that serve public relations goals and keep all of the Bay “partners” happy. While PR is a popular way to establish credibility, it will not bring in those of us who are looking for results.
Poor public management of living resources in the Bay is epitomized by Maryland’s recent decision to let the watermen harvest the last of the native oysters with power dredges, and Virginia’s continued disregard for the stock effects of dredging sponge crabs.
Menhaden, the most important forage fish for larger fish species in the Bay, continue to be harvested at a rate that undermines stocks and leaves rockfish hungry and looking for other food.
While these policies are outside the control of the Chesapeake Bay Program, the failure of the restoration community to speak publicly against them does not inspire confidence.
Nor does the Bay Program’s pursuit of de-listing the Bay from the national set of impaired waters inspire confidence. To believe that what could not be achieved in the first 15 years of the program will now be achieved before 2011 requires a serious leap of faith. The skeptical among us see this as merely a way to put off getting serious about the Bay restoration, as the TMDL rule would do.
On one level, the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay is a question of science. But, there is little cause for cheer in the Bay Program’s use of science. While it was important at the start of the process to understand what was happening in the water column, we now know that the solutions to the problems of the Bay lie in the things that we do on the land.
Yet, through bureaucratic inertia, research funding continues to target the water column. The study of nutrient reduction practices on the land is, consequently, starved of funds.
The efficiencies of nutrient pollution abatement practices are so poorly understood, it is impossible to be certain about how to maximize reductions. We simply do not know enough about what works and what doesn’t. This is one reason why the models do not reflect reality.
On another level, the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay is a question of putting in place sustainable policies and programs that will achieve and maintain water quality goals. But, instead of these, we have largely ad hoc public funding for bits and pieces of the puzzle. Because of this, even if we did have a good handle on what the most effective and cost-efficient practices were, we do not have any way to ensure that those are the practices that get implemented.
When these problems are addressed—when research funds better target the problem and its potential solutions, when the Bay Program and its partners speak up about bad resource management, when effort shifts from making the program look good to actually achieving the goals of improved water quality—then there will be a basis for vesting the program with credibility.
When, there will be leadership that we can all feel proud of.
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