Bay Journal

To make Chesapeake great again, red & blue must strive for green

  • By Al Todd on December 21, 2016
Everyone needs a healthy Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, no matter what one’s politics are.  (Dave Harp)

All of us awoke on Nov. 9 to some unexpected feelings. Whether you felt joy or fear, the future seemed a bit more uncertain. That uncertainty extends to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed as well.

For nearly 50 years, the environmental community has been involved in a conversation about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. We have debated about what the problems are, who is responsible, what restoration looks like, how to pay for it, who should pay and what are the best ways to get there.

Progress has been slow; and even though positive signs of progress are evident, much remains to be done amid an uneasy feeling that we do not have forever to get it done. Adding uncertainty to that picture can be discouraging.

What should we make of the election results and the populist surge that brought Donald Trump to the presidency? How should we examine the path ahead in terms of the efforts to protect and restore the Chesapeake? With such a divided population, it seems that now, more than ever, we will all need to better listen to each other if we are to get anything done.

In reflecting on the election, I wondered if there is something missing from our dialogue about the Bay? Can we focus only on what needs to be done for water, fish and the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay, without forging a path that addresses the health of people and our economy with equal vigor? People cannot be healthy if they are living in an unhealthy environment. Likewise, the environment cannot be healthy if people are hurting — physically, emotionally and economically. Finding these connections seems more critical than ever.

This is a struggle that has been under way for some time. In 1938, Aldo Leopold wrote in his essay, A Survey of Conservation, “We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve justice or liberty for all people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.” We have been striving and have turned the corner in many ways. Our ongoing work to “Make the Chesapeake Bay Great again” will continue uninterrupted.

Other than differing views on climate change and a threat to rein in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the environment was not really on the agenda in the recent election. The economy, jobs, infrastructure, health care and taxes were on everyone’s platform, but little was said about the connection of those issues to the environment and the quality of life we will leave to our children. It seems obvious that regardless of politics, everyone needs clean air and water to live a healthy and happy life. The health of the environment should be the ultimate bipartisan issue, right?

One of the few things that the two candidates did agree on was the need to spend more on infrastructure. Hillary Clinton proposed $275 billion in new infrastructure spending, to go along with another $25 billion in loans and guarantees to support private-sector investments. Trump pledged to at least double that figure. This pledge presents an opportunity to make the dialogue about infrastructure investment go beyond roads and bridges, and to include both the gray and the green infrastructure.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee recently presented a workshop with local officials and businesses on “integrated Infrastructure.” The strategy they discussed is to “Dig Once.” The workshop recognized that to improve water quality and local streams in developed areas, the best option is to integrate stormwater practices and green infrastructure into capital improvement projects like roads, utilities, water systems, schools, etc. This approach advances multiple objectives and achieves more cost-effective solutions because you only dig once!

If we are poised to make a huge investment in infrastructure and want to optimize the benefits, this approach should be seriously considered. Dig Once will deliver results if administrative, procurement, funding and financing, and operational systems are aligned to optimize the process from the beginning. The result could be not only one of the biggest investments in rebuilding, but a major boost in the restoration economy as well.

Merging green and gray infrastructure will also deliver on creating jobs. After the last big infrastructure push in the 2000s — the “Stimulus,” — an analysis revealed one undeniable finding: The greatest number of jobs created per dollar spent came from projects that focused on natural resources — green infrastructure! Win-win.

It does work. For more than five years, the Alliance has shown this through managing our READY Program (Restoring the Environment And Developing Youth). In the mold of the Civilian Conservation Corps, READY delivers on-the-ground job training for young adults and community-based stormwater improvements simultaneously. The success of the program in Howard County, MD, spawned new efforts in Anne Arundel County, MD, and planning in Lancaster, PA, Richmond, VA, and elsewhere in the watershed.

With approaches like these, we can simultaneously improve neighborhoods and trout streams; decrease flooding as well as parts per million of nitrogen and phosphorus; and beautify businesses; create jobs as well as parks (or in parks!); and celebrate racial and cultural diversity as well as ecological diversity.

Our work to restore the Chesapeake must be about restoring water quality. But the truth is it will also need to be about restoring neighborhoods, community parks, schoolyards, water supplies, working farms and forests, historic waterfronts and community service.

Communications in the Chesapeake community are also a challenge. Much of what is conveyed to the public about the Chesapeake Bay is intended to shock people into action, with a regular dose of fear, guilt, and shame. Too often, each situation is viewed as right or wrong, win or lose. The perception is that environmental issues are emotional and they won’t impact me if I keep my distance. What we really need is an emotional connection that draws people to nature, the Bay and its rivers.

There is no denying it, we have our work cut out for us. In a recent pilot survey completed by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Stewardship workgroup, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed were convinced that individually, they had no impact on water quality where they lived. Actions like the “rain tax” or the “flush fee” are viewed as taking away, rather than giving back to, our personal welfare.

We know that the health of the watershed is dependent on the health of society and vice versa. If the symptom of the disease is humans beating up nature, then we need to focus on treating that human problem. We must weave this basic focus into all that is done. Right now, caring for our environment seems to be a luxury, or optional — a nicety. It needs to be a necessity. Adjusting these opinions and patterns of behavior will be at the core of our work in the future.

The long journey to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed must succeed, regardless of who is in the White House. Not because the government or environmental groups say it must, but because it is where we live and work. It is our home, and society should stand for nothing less than a healthy Chesapeake watershed. The Alliance will work tirelessly to do its part.

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About Al Todd

Al Todd is the executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Read more articles by Al Todd

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Dick Williams on December 28, 2016:

This is a fine piece of thinking and writing, Mr. Todd, about how the message of conservation and restoration needs re-tailoring as a red/blue/green win for people's health and a well biosphere. Your view about the "rain tax" and "flush fees" is spot-on. When the actions of many businesses (real estate, ag and utilities, to name three) harm the environment, making life more stressful, identified counter-measures need more successful expressions of support for human wellness, ergo benefit. Listening to another's best description of their truth rather than conjuring alienating language for the "knockout" reply needs consideration anew, as you suggest. (Back to school?)


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