Bay Journal

Summit offers new approaches to Bay restoration

  • By Karl Blankenship on April 23, 2015
Panel participants (L to R) Adam Ortiz, Joel Dunn, Kim Coble, Tim Wheeler, Donald Boesch and moderator Frank Sesno discuss sustainable development. (MPT/Larry Canner)

Nutrient limits for individual farms. Better environmental enforcement. More technical assistance for farmers. An honest discussion about population. Greener development.

Those were among the ideas proposed by a panel of Bay experts on Tuesday about policy changes that could lead to greater improvements for the Chesapeake, where three decades of work — and billions of dollars — has produced only slow progress in improving water quality and forging a more sustainable watershed.

“The Chesapeake Bay Summit: Charting a Course” was presented by Maryland Public Television and broadcast on numerous other public television stations throughout the watershed to offer alternative solutions.

“We’re going to try something different,” said panel moderator Frank Sesno, an award-winning journalist and director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. “We’re going to work here to create a list of ideas, some new ways of thinking about cleaning up the Chesapeake in the future.”

Panelists were each asked to identify a specific obstacle to Bay progress and propose a solution. Some ideas, such as setting nutrient caps for individual farms or debating a population target for the watershed, sparked lively discussion but were intended to stimulate conversations about changing the way Bay efforts have been conducted for decades.

MPT, in a partnership with the Bay Journal, will follow up on those issues in reports over the next 18 months.

The discussions were divided into two parts: dealing with nutrient pollution, the most vexing water quality issue facing the Bay, and promoting sustainable growth, which protects the region’s resources and landscapes in the future.

Nutrient Pollution

Obstacle: Agricultural nutrient management requires substantial unsustainable public subsidies and has weak accountability.
Alternative: Require farms to operate under nutrient caps and make subsidies conditional on attainment of the caps.
Donald Boesch,  president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said current efforts to reduce nutrient runoff from farms are costly and likely unsustainable. He instead called for a “performance based” approach to managing agricultural nutrients in which farmers would have targets established for individual farms. A farmer who consistently failed to meet a target would jeopardize his ability to receive government subsidies, either for participating in conservation programs or for commodity programs that subsidize crop growth. “There’s a real, built-in incentive for farmers” to perform, he said.

Obstacle: Denial — blaming someone or something else for the Bay’s problems.
Alternative: Change laws to make nutrient management compliance data available online.
Tim Wheeler, who has been covering the Chesapeake for 25 years for the Baltimore Sun, said that people continually point to others as the source of Bay problems. He called for making more information, such as nutrient management plans for farms, available online so people could track what was supposed to happen and whether it was actually being done. “Information is power,” he said. “Information shows people what’s being done and what’s not being done.”

Obstacle: The lack of adequate funding available to farmers for the implementation of nutrient control practices.
Alternative: Increase and target financial and technical assistance to farmers through state and federal cost-share programs.
Kim Coble, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said there is too little money available to meet all of the demands for the Bay cleanup, especially in the agricultural sector. She said more efforts are needed to target available money to the areas where it would do the most good. For instance, the $22 million Maryland spends on cover crops could be directed to farms where there are steep slopes or other conditions that make them more susceptible to runoff. “There’ll never be enough funds — whether the farmer pays for them or whether the agencies pay for them,” Coble said. “That’s why I believe that targeting those funds is really critical.”

Obstacle: Not enough technical assistance and support for farmers in the watershed.
Alternative: Establish additional technical assistance to help achieve goals.
Lynne Hoot, executive director of Maryland Agricultural Associates, said new technologies, like those that help farmers more precisely place and time nutrient applications, can help meet nutrient goals, but there are not enough trained staff in county extension offices available to work with farmers. She noted that Maryland law in 1999 established a set number of field positions in those offices to help farmers. Still, she said, “there’s been a shortage there.”
 
Obstacles: Not enough enforcement of all nutrient pollution regulations.
Alternative:  Greater commitment by government to undertake enforcement.
Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, said state and federal agencies need to do a better job of enforcing existing regulations to make sure efforts stay on track. For instance, she said, the EPA has said it would impose consequences on states if they don’t meet nutrient and sediment goals imposed in the Bay “pollution diet.” “That needs to happen, and that needs to happen before we fail,” she said. Similarly, state and federal governments need to do a better job ensuring that programs to regulate stormwater, wastewater discharges and large animal feeding operations are meeting requirements. Not only do the polluters need to be accountable, she said, but the public needs better assurance that oversight agencies are doing their job. “I get a ticket when I speed, the IRS audits my tax return, and I am just a normal average citizen,” she said. “Why shouldn’t we hold the federal, state, local governments, and also other forms of pollution — sewage treatment plants, stormwater runoff — accountable?”

With much of its focus on agriculture, the panel sparked discussion on how much regulation should be placed on the farm sector.

Hoot cautioned that farmers in Maryland already face numerous regulations and, in addition to producing food, provide benefits such as open spaces that conserve the region’s landscape. Regulations that increase farmer costs, she said, could make them uncompetitive with other regions of the country.

“I think we need to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just trying to achieve one goal and lose a lot of others,” Hoot said.

Boesch agreed that farms provide many important services and that policies need to be more consistent across the country. But, he said, “we in Maryland have every good reason to be the leaders in the nation to come up with those innovative strategies. Then based upon that leadership, it can be extended elsewhere in the country.”

Sustainable Growth

Obstacle: Cheap energy allows sprawling development and a large human footprint on the landscape.
Alternative: Aggressive commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all land-use, zoning and transportation decisions. 
Boesch said development plans should be required to show how the project would reduce, rather than increase, greenhouse gas emissions to help meet state and national goals, especially when it relates to transportation. “If we’re going to have to reduce our emissions 50, 75 percent, why in the world would we grow and develop in ways that require automobiles to transport people?” he asked.

Obstacle: Population growth and development.
Alternative: Set population targets within the carrying capacity of the Bay.
Wheeler said the region ultimately needs a conversation about the carrying capacity of the ecosystem — the number of people the watershed could support and still have a healthy Bay. “The reason that we’ve spent $15 billion to basically hold the ground on the Chesapeake Bay is because we’ve been paddling against the tide of population growth,” he said.
“If we’re going to make the progress to actually restore the Bay, we have to figure out how to do that. Growing smartly, more compactly — those help, but if we keep adding people, we’re still going to overwhelm it in the end. Now, we have to talk about what is an ideal target population here.”

Obstacle:  Over-development of open land with unsustainable automobile-centric growth.
Alternative:  Redevelopment using smart growth principles.
Coble said we should make greater efforts to redevelop urban areas and make them more attractive to people, which would reduce dependence on automobiles and reduce demand to develop open spaces. “Think of parts of Baltimore, where it [once had] run-down warehouses that are now vibrant condominiums and markets and shops and jobs — and everybody can walk to each of those.”

Obstacle: Our society lacks a widespread sustainable land ethic.
Alternative: Create innovative conservation programs and connection to nature.
Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, said that with a growing population, the region needs new efforts and new partnerships to identify its most critical resources and ensure they are protected into the future. The region, he said, needs a sustainability ethic like that of the Iroquois who believe we should think seven generations into the future when making decisions. “Can you imagine thinking about where we develop our roads and our new neighborhoods and our new cities and thinking OK, how will that affect people 140 years from now? If we did think that way, I think we’d develop more sustainably.”

Obstacle:  Outdated stormwater infrastructure is environmentally damaging.
Alternative:  Leverage public/private partnerships regionwide wide to retrofit it.
Adam Ortiz, director of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Department of the Environment, said local governments need to forge partnerships with the private sector to restore existing neighborhoods using techniques that reduce runoff through “green” landscaping techniques that also make them a more a more attractive place to live. That’s important, he said, because people may care about the Bay in an abstract way, but they care more directly about their community. The aesthetic improvements will make residents want to take a walk or a bike ride, “but to geeky people like us, we’re going to know that the water is going to be cleaner before it goes into the river.”

The panel produced lively debate, especially on the issue of population. Coble, for instance, said it was unlikely the region would set a limit on population and efforts are better spent on reducing the impact of individuals. “The fine point here is that we all have to understand our impact,” she said.

Ortiz said is not a question of whether the region grows, but how it grows. “I think under new technologies, low-impact development, we can grow in a way that we can live in balance and bring Mother Nature back into our neighborhood,” he said.

Wheeler, though, said that the growing population will inevitably push into new areas and impact the region’s resources. “It doesn’t take very much pavement before you start to see the fish and wildlife go away,” he noted. Ultimately, he said, people need to reconsider the notion that growth is good and something to be promoted, and also to consider how it adds to the problem. “What is an acceptable amount of growth and how can we stay on top of that in order to actually make progress restoring the Bay?” he asked.

For information about the summit, and to view the full panel discussion, visit bayweek.mpt.org/summit

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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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