Bill Matuszeski’s commentary on the prospects for Chesapeake 2000 in the March Bay Journal begs a reply. Hope and optimism are crucial for success in any human endeavor and it is the role of leaders to inspire hope and optimism among their constituencies.
But, as Mr. Matuszeski notes in his commentary, the Bay Program is striking out in new territory, employing approaches that have not yet been tried on such a large scale. I would argue that, in such a situation, along with hope and optimism, a healthy dose of critical assessment would be useful. Just so we know what we are up against and what the pitfalls might be.
The Bay Program is embarking on a second mission, Chesapeake 2000, after achieving mixed results under its first mission.
In the original Bay agreement, the Bay Program sought to reduce nutrient flows to the Chesapeake by 40 percent, and to otherwise help to restore the health of the Bay.
Modeling data indicate that, by the 2000 deadline for this mission, the 40 percent reduction goal was met for phosphorous and almost met for nitrogen. Monitoring data, on the other hand, indicate that nutrient concentrations in the Bay and its tributaries have not changed. Furthermore, the ancillary goals such as higher levels of dissolved oxygen and improved conditions among the Bay’s living resources have yet to materialize.
Although Chesapeake 2000 is weighed down with a large number of individual targets, its essential goal is in line with the original goal of the Bay Program. That is to maintain the nutrient reductions achieved to date and to further improve the health of the Bay by a raft of specific measures. Major efforts, as identified in Mr. Matuszeski’s commentary, include: land preservation, reduced development, oyster restoration, toxics abatement and, more generally, managing around the political, economic and bureaucratic obstacles to maintaining and enhancing nutrient reductions.
It is in the last of these efforts that there is the most cause for concern over whether the principals of the Bay Program and its partners have learned the right lessons from the execution of the first stage. If, instead of learning what worked and what didn’t, and why, Bay Program and partner agency officials merely put a brave face on the achievements of the first mission to avoid the unpleasantness of critical evaluation, there is little reason to imagine that they will be able to manage around the obstacles to maintaining and enhancing nutrient reductions in the Bay.
I would list the difficult lessons of phase one of the Bay Program this way:
Lesson 1: The fight is not between voluntary and regulated nutrient reductions, it is about who is going to pay for them. The policy that generated the largest reduction in nutrient loadings to the Chesapeake Bay was the ban on phosphates in detergents. This was a regulatory action. Consumers paid the price but few of us really noticed.
In another of the more successful efforts to reduce nutrient flows to the Bay — biological nutrient reduction at waste water treatment plants — the reductions were not so much achieved through “voluntary” actions as they were by “cost-shared” actions.
The wastewater plants that adopted BNR have done so because cost-share programs have reduced their out-of-pocket costs. Similarly, many agricultural nonpoint source reductions have been achieved through subsidies to the agricultural enterprises who implement best management practices. This is not to say that farmers and wastewater plant owners have not had to ante up real money to achieve reductions in nutrient loadings. Nor that they are unwilling to shoulder their share of the burden in restoring the Chesapeake Bay. But there should be little doubt that sharing the costs publicly helped to make more reductions happen than would have taken place without such help.
Lesson 2: Pick the low-hanging fruit first. Each dollar that is spent on the Chesapeake Bay’s cleanup should buy as much nutrient reduction as possible. If the Bay Program adopted a simple decision rule such as this, it would doubtlessly have achieved greater nutrient reductions than it has. But, the Bay Program seems to have had a strong preference for voluntary approaches in its methods for achieving nutrient reductions. In attending to this preference, it has probably missed opportunities to buy cheaper and more predictable nutrient reductions.
Take, for example, “Industries taking initiative, big bite out of nutrient discharges” (December 2000) which describes the pollution reduction efforts of 12 industrial polluters out of 49 who contribute significant nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. It is a very double-edged story bearing good news about that quarter of the larger industrial polluters who have voluntarily reduced their nutrient pollution and, on the other hand, reporting that neither those firms nor the other three quarters of the set were bound by any rule or regulation to reduce the nutrients that flow out of their enterprises.
If one quarter of a sample of large industrial polluters will voluntarily reduce their nutrient outfall by 17 million pounds per year, what might a simple regulation have done?
Couldn’t Bay Program resources be used to encourage a nutrient emissions standard for point source polluters? If necessary, couldn’t some public funds have been found to help achieve these standards? Surely, this would be a cheaper policy than policing 50,000 agricultural nutrient management plans.
Lesson 3: One useful committee is infinitely more valuable than one hundred useless committees. The Bay Program is a complicated construct with political, legal, bureaucratic and scientific aspects. A hallmark of the program, though, is the widespread use of committees empowered with terms of reference, mostly volunteer (or seconded) labor, and, sometimes, a small budget.
These committees add significant heft to the publication “Who’s Who in the Chesapeake Bay Program.” But, when I sent off requests to five of them last February for annual reports or some documentation of what they had been up to over the preceding year, I got one reply. It is not clear to the interested outsider what these committees are doing.
The Mandated Committee model adopted by the Bay Program allows their staff and money resources to be spread over a much broader horizon than would be possible if they had to staff these committees as bureaus.
Plus, the committees engender a beneficial mixing of people and ideas as staff from partner agencies, stakeholders and others are brought together to focus their attention on specific issues. This is all to the good. But, with respect to output, quasi-volunteer labor under a loose political mandate cannot compete with hired labor and contracted deliverables. This will become more apparent as the issues become more pressing and committee response shortfalls become more of a problem.
Lesson 4: Don’t apologize for knowing things that the Bay watershed model doesn’t. Decisions within the Bay Program are based on the “best available science.” This is good. But if the best available science cannot take into its calculations the nutrient uptake effect of oyster populations, does that mean that we have to ignore what scientists do know about this? Do we have to wait until the Bay model can quantify with accuracy, precision and confidence the exact nutrient reduction benefit of oysters before we truly get serious about replenishing oyster stocks?
I must admit to an emotional reaction to Mr. Matuszeski’s nod to oyster restoration efforts. These efforts are not only puny with respect to their potential payoff, they are doomed to failure because the Bay Program and its partners will not face the fact that oyster stocks cannot withstand both disease and harvest mortality.
The Bay model and all of the subsidiary modeling that goes on in the Bay Program are essential for determining the technical problems and the efficacy of solutions to those problems. But even when the technical problem and its solution are well specified, we are still faced with choices on how to put the solution to work. Implementation choices are limited to three small categories: regulatory policies, voluntary programs and market-based incentives.
There are factors to help choose policies and programs that are not part of the standard technical model. These factors are economic and institutional analyses, precious little of which is employed by the Bay Program.
Lesson 5: The last lesson is watch out for the stakeholders. Everyone would like a clean Bay, but nobody wants to bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Groups of stakeholders will provide loud insight into why specific policies and approaches will hurt their constituencies or industries, and it is the job of the Bay Program to find a path between streamrolling the stakeholders and being held hostage by them.
If, as was proposed above, an economic efficiency decision rule was applied by the Bay Program in its nutrient reduction efforts, there would still remain the question of equity or fairness in the distribution of costs. Is it fair to pay a farmer for a grassed buffer but to make the textile mill cover all its nutrient reduction costs out of its own revenues? When does the polluter pay and when should the public pay?
These are questions with real significance for the next stage of the Bay restoration effort.
I am sure that other observers have different lists. We are, as Mr. Matuszeski says, covering new territory. The Bay Program will need to be innovative and resourceful to chart a path through this territory. Thus, I find the future a bit more hazy than Mr. Matuszeski does.