I once had a professor who would lead our class in discussions of extremely complicated issues, often involving natural resources, conflicting public demands and economic tradeoffs. After watching us get enmeshed deeper and deeper in all the arguments and conflicts until we were all wrapped in policy knots and furious with each other, he would often offer some simple advice: “Why don’t you all just back up and start with the obvious truths, the essential realities that are self-evident?”
There are a number of issues around the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort where I suggest it might be the right time to back up and start over with the realities. I realize this is an exercise fraught with the potential to make anyone engaging in it to look naive and unaware of the complexities. But when I talk to informed colleagues about three issues in particular, they seem to agree that certain obvious truths are all but lost in the debates.
Let’s start with the blue crab, probably the pre-eminent symbol of the Chesapeake Bay. Year after year, the debates go on about the state of the blue crab population, how healthy it is, and how much pressure from harvest it can take. We have blue crab surveys and assessment groups and technical groups and advisory committees, and they all are trying to understand the status of the crab and what needs to be done to assure its viability.
These groups are all valuable and sincere in their efforts to understand a very complex critter’s life cycle, and they get deeply involved in such concepts as spawning stock biomass, threshold fishing mortality rates and recruitment trends. There are four separate annual surveys and numerous other data sources feeding all this analysis. Every year we learn a little bit more, but seemingly never enough to settle on a common management strategy.
Yet, if we back up and look at it all, a number of truths are evident. The biomass of the spawning stock is on a downward trend, which means there are fewer and fewer crabs mating and producing eggs. And, the harvest is staying about the same, on a three-year average. All you have to do is put those two facts together and it is clear that the current trend is not sustainable. This is made even more evident by scientific studies which estimate that we are currently managing the harvest right at the edge of long-term survivability; we could go over that edge at any time, and maybe not be able to return for a long, long time.
What is the answer? Once again, if you back up from all the rhetoric and all the analysis and studies, it is very clear that the crab industry is over-capitalized. There are many more people in it than there were traditionally, and they are using substantially higher numbers of pots per person than in the past. If we want a sustainable harvest and a decent income level for watermen in the crab fishery, the effort simply has to be reduced. This can be done by limiting the number of harvesters or limiting how much they can harvest, or a combination of both. Those are the simple truths.
Another area where I suggest it is time to deal with economic reality is dredging the shipping channels in the Chesapeake. Recently, there has been a great deal of controversy over a proposal for the open water discharge of material dredged from the approach channels to Baltimore Harbor at a place called “Site 104,” located above the Bay Bridge. Use of the site is part of the Port Authority’s 20 Year Plan for dredged material disposal, along with Poplar Island, the expansion of Hart-Miller Island and other projects.
The controversy has arisen over the effects of such open water discharge. There have been enormous amounts written about the project, a full environmental impact statement and supporting documents, but questions continue to be raised about movement of the material after placement and the effects on living resources, water clarity and nutrient levels in the Bay. The debates are intense and filled with analyses of the reports, but there are also unfortunate intimations that the choice is between an economically viable port and an environmentally viable Bay.
Time to step back and do a reality check? I think so. What is really driving the choice of open water discharge is the economics of disposal. Other alternatives like island construction or containment facilities are substantially more expensive per cubic yard of material, primarily because of preparation costs and often longer distances to sites. So there appears to be a major cost savings from open water disposal.
I say “appears,” because in reality the way open water costs are calculated substantially underestimates the true cost. In particular, there is no cost associated with mitigating the environmental effects of the operation. Studies for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, estimate that the annual release of nitrogen from Site 104 placement will be about 400,000 pounds. To give that some perspective, I am told that is about the discharge of a sewage treatment plant with nutrient removal technology for a city the size of Annapolis. And the Corps study is limited to the impacts at the discharge area; it does not estimate releases at the point of removal or the loadings from newly exposed deep sediments, which hold nutrients.
The point is simply this: Determining the cost of the full range of environmental effects of open water discharge, and if we were to require full mitigation of those impacts, could significantly change the current perceived economic advantage of the open water discharge and make alternative projects relatively more attractive. Of course, we need to understand more about the impacts of those alternatives so they can be properly mitigated, as well. For example, containment facilities such as Hart-Miller Island not only continually discharge nutrients into the Bay, they may even have outfalls that act like point sources. Only when we back up and evaluate the impacts and potential for mitigation from all the alternatives can we begin to get a handle on the true costs of alternative means of dredged material disposal and make sensible choices.
The third issue that cries out for an injection of common sense is highway projects, in particular the issue of “induced development.” This is the idea that major new highways need to be evaluated not only for the impacts of their rights-of-way on wetlands, parks and neighborhoods they cut through, but also for the development and other regional economic and land use changes they induce. Somehow, we have managed to create an entire profession of highway engineers who are in denial about induced development. Their unofficial line is that new highways do not create conditions for development, they simply respond to existing or proposed development.
While this may have some validity with respect to projects to relieve congestion in built-up areas, the argument is even applied by some to proposals like outer beltways, bypasses and other projects in essentially open terrain. And the level of acrimony is so high that a very real problem is the extensive delays caused by stalemate and litigation.
We have an excellent example of the reality of induced impact right here in the Bay region. Before the construction of the Bay Bridge, I dare say no one commuted daily from the Eastern Shore to Annapolis. Today the morning rush hour brings thousands over the Bridge, not only to Annapolis, but beyond to Baltimore and Washington. Case closed.
Of course, the Bridge is an easy case to prove, but the concept is the same. It just gets messier when you are talking about the Western Bypass or the Route 301 corridor, because there are more points of access. The issue of induced development from highways is important to the Bay for a number of reasons – air pollution, loss of resource lands to development and increased stormwater from impervious surfaces.
Three cases where the professor would suggest we might benefit from stepping back and looking for the underlying truths.