Bay Journal

Why kick the can when you can put your best foot forward?

  • By Al Todd on January 01, 2013

I sometimes wonder if future historians will look back at this time in U.S. history and call it the "Kicking the Can Down the Road" Era. For those unfamiliar with the term, kicking the can down the road means delaying a decision in the hope that the problem or issue will go away or somebody else will make the decision later.

Sound familiar?

Sometimes kicking the can down the road is about trying to keep a problem hidden, like being told, "There is nothing to see here, just keep moving." Even when a problem can no longer be ignored, there is a tendency to put off for tomorrow the hard choices that we know should be made today.

For most of 2012, we heard about the problems of our federal debt, the economy and the "fiscal cliff" that our country faced at the end of 2012.

These crises have been long in the making. We didn't just suddenly come around a bend in the fiscal road and there was the cliff. We knew this was coming — a classic case of kicking the can down the road.

Avoiding the cliff and bringing about a more balanced federal budget requires making hard choices and paying costs that our political leadership would much rather avoid. Delay or only fixing a part of the problem is considered by many to be a reasonable approach.

At the heart of this philosophy is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of admitting responsibility for letting the problem get so bad, fear of the political consequences of action, fear of making hard choices that will be unpopular or fear of doing things differently. Prolonging the status quo helps avoid addressing these fears.

For the effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay, the can has been kicked down the road more than once. Don't get me wrong, there has been progress. The watershed community — from government to business to non-governmental organizations — have come a long way in the last 25 years and accomplished a great deal. The Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, with all of its shortcomings, is still the envy of the world.

But for the remaining issues facing clean air and clean water in this region, a kicking the can down the road philosophy still seems popular.

The recent Chesapeake Total Maximum Daily Load or "pollution diet" for the Bay made hard choices to not kick the can much farther. Developing the plans needed to implement the TMDL will also represent tough choices, especially for local governments. Progress on some of the most difficult problems, like nonpoint source pollution, require not only careful planning for the future, but also dealing with a legacy of problems that were put off for decades.

Stormwater runoff is a good example. Throughout the watershed, past development patterns, runoff from impervious areas and a general lack of effective stormwater controls present serious challenges to overcome, and in some cases, expensive challenges as well.

But lawsuits and other legal actions keep threatening to put those solutions off again. Some Maryland counties are suggesting that rather than get started, they should kick the can down the road and wait until problems upstream are solved. Local officials are claiming that silt and debris released from the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna undermine their efforts downstream. No one is denying the impact that the dam has on the Bay, but regardless of its impact, we all still need to focus on cleaning up local waterways.

This rhetoric, like that of the federal budget stalemate, misses the point. It is a false choice to think that one should wait until everyone else fixes their problem before fixing the woes in one's own backyard. The truth is, we must solve problems both upstream and downstream if we are to restore the Bay. We are in this together.

I will not belittle the challenge that local governments face in achieving the water quality goals needed to restore clean water to local streams and the Bay. They are significant. And while some would argue that a 2025 deadline is plenty of time and long overdue, this time frame can also seem insurmountable.

The reluctance to move forward comes from the large price tags publicized for local restoration plans — plans that must be implemented over the next decade and more. If there is any lesson learned from the past, it is that environmental problems just continue to get more difficult and expensive to solve when we put them off to the future.

But as the saying goes: Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Instead of kicking the can down the road, it would be useful to focus attention on just how to get started — taking the first few bites!

Local efforts would be best focused on developing a reasonable program for the first five or more years. In total, the challenge may seem overwhelming, but past experience shows that as we address problems, we learn efficiencies and master techniques that lower cost and improve effectiveness. Numerous economic studies have also shown that local investments in restoration will create jobs and stimulate local economies, economies that also depend on a clean and healthy environment.

It is important to acknowledge the challenges local governments are facing. The Alliance and others have been working with local governments to find green community-based approaches to stormwater that work and are helping to convene local officials and stormwater specialists to discuss new strategies. State and federal agencies must also do all they can to help local governments find innovative solutions and develop the mechanisms they need to pay for them —help them get started. Actions and financing strategies that create new momentum may be more important than having a guarantee that the total bill will be paid. Instead of focusing on lawsuits or long term funding dilemmas, it is time to take that 'first big bite'.

Keeping the Chesapeake watershed on a path to health means helping local governments build the financing strategies they need to succeed — strategies that we all will need to contribute to. These are hard choices, tough decisions for local governments. But it is not a time to turn back, point fingers, or 'kick the can down the road'. It¹s time to get started.

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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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