Bay Journal

The Bay Program has come a long way in 30 years, but has only just begun

  • By Karl Blankenship on June 08, 2013
  • Comments are closed for this article.
(l–r) Jacques Cousteau, Virginia Gov. Charles “Chuck” Robb and Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes autograph posters at 1983’s Chesapeake Futures Conference.  (Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay)

The program is the official federal-state-local partnership working on science, policy and programs that support the restoration effort.

I'm at the point in my life when I think of 30 as young. But there is a sense among some politicians and citizens that we've been spending a lot of money and a lot of time over three decades, so why aren't we done by now?

Agreed. I would like to be done, too. But looking back, the vast amount of cutting-edge science, innovative programs, creative policies and passionate citizen action facilitated by this partnership over the last 30 years cannot be ignored. Many issues remain, but we have far more tools to address them as a result of the Bay Program.

Partnerships are all about collaboration. Consensus has never been easy. But time and time again, the Chesapeake Bay Program has proven that when smart and dedicated people come together — face to face — with the intent of solving a problem, they will find something to move forward on together. Progress has never been fast enough, but looking back, what has been done is pretty remarkable.

The year was 1983, and the EPA had just wrapped up a seven-year study which found that the Chesapeake Bay was in a dire state. The original study spelled out in great detail what was wrong with the Bay but said very little about what was needed to be done about it. Many worried that with the study over, efforts to clean up the Bay would end before they ever got started.

The newly created Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represented the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland, asked the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to organize a conference to discuss the study and to try to forge a plan for the road ahead. More than 700 people showed up at George Mason University in Virginia for the Chesapeake Futures Conference, including senators, legislators, agency heads and hundreds of interested citizens and watershed groups. Jacques Cousteau gave the keynote speech.

But the gathering also brought together, for the first time, the governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia; the mayor of the District of Columbia; and the EPA administrator. They listened to policy ideas and solutions recommended by workgroups formed to discuss individual issues facing the Bay and its watershed. With so much attention focused on the Bay, it seemed like something should happen.

And something did.

The landmark 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement was the first pledge by political leaders to work together to restore the Chesapeake Bay. It led to the birth of the Chesapeake Bay Program — a unique, bipartisan watershed partnership. Hope for the Bay's restoration and the excitement it represented drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

After 1983, the pace of activity picked up quickly. The Critical Areas and Chesapeake Bay Preservation Acts passed, limiting development along Bay shorelines. Phosphate detergent bans were enacted in all states. Major federal initiatives, like the 1985 Farm Bill and 1987 Coastal Zone Management Act, brought additional resources to the watershed.

Meanwhile, the EPA and the new partnership stepped up work with the states, scientists and non-government organizations to translate the study into meaningful strategies for tackling the Bay's problems. The EPA opened a coordination office in Annapolis and created ways to bring diverse input into the effort. The Alliance organized the Citizens Advisory Committee and a Local Government Advisory Committee followed — groups that are still a formal part of the Bay Program.

With new attention on the Bay, the public called for stronger and more significant commitments that would help measure progress. In 1987, the Chesapeake Bay Program's Executive Council reached a new agreement that targeted a 40 percent reduction in nutrient pollution by 2000. No one knew if the goal was reachable, but it was a target to work toward.

The agreement contained other commitments too, such as addressing land use and sprawl. By the 1990s, the 40 percent reduction goal was divided up for each major river. The 1992 amendments to the Bay Agreement were signed and further defined the implementation as a set of "tributary strategies."

It was becoming clear that cleaning up the Chesapeake would be an issue that affected everyone and that local action would be largely responsible for any success.

Advances in scientific understanding in the 1990s led to the emergence of multiple strategies to address the Bay's health. Bay Program teams worked to improve sewage treatment, agricultural practices, toxic pollution and land use planning, as well as to restore wetlands and fisheries, conserve forests, reduce stormwater, and enable public access and education — all while reducing nutrient and sediment pollution.

New strategies brought more groups and federal agencies into the effort to restore the Bay and its watershed. People came from around the world to learn about the Bay Program, its initiatives and the science it had produced.

In 2000, the partners came together again to sign a more comprehensive agreement called Chesapeake 2000. It outlined a diverse set of more than 100 goals intended to spur broad-based action that reached far beyond water quality. The states of Delaware, West Virginia and New York began to work with the Bay Program.

By 2010, with most goals achieved but Bay health still lagging behind, it was clear that the landscape of the partnership was shifting. New federal attention came to the Bay's plight with a Presidential Executive Order. In late 2010, the EPA issued the first ever Baywide pollution limits, or total maximum daily load. This action meant that all of the states, the district and the partnership itself had to reassess their relationships and somehow alter their way of doing business. Trying to find the right balance between voluntary and regulatory measures continues to test the partnership.

Over 30 years, through changes in leadership and despite occasional contentious political debates, Bay Program partners on the federal, state and local stage have continued to secure new resources and shepherd the watershed recovery forward.

In the 1980s, the Bay Program was a new and exciting nonpartisan effort. Today, our leaders face daunting challenges in a political landscape that challenges the sense of common purpose needed to sustain momentum for cleaning up the Chesapeake. Experiences learned in those 30 years of working together will, it is hoped, provide a reserve to draw on in the future. Much has been done to restore the Bay — yet much work remains. That work will require bold leadership and an informed and engaged citizenry.

The stage is set.

Later this year, the Chesapeake Bay Program's Executive Council is likely to sign a new agreement that will guide the partnership in the future.

But, if this effort to restore the Bay is a race, it is not a sprint or even a marathon. More likely it is a relay — a sacred responsibility handed off from generation to generation.

We will continue to need strong leaders in the future.

It is up to us all to make smart decisions today so our sons and daughters are empowered to carry on the work tomorrow.

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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).

Read more articles by Karl Blankenship

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