I have enjoyed Chesapeake Bay for more than 60 years and written about it for nearly 40. Early in my reporting career I realized I was covering more than pollution or the vicissitudes of fish and crabs.
I had a front row seat to a grand experiment. We had taken a world class ecosystem and screwed it up big time; then begun an unprecedented effort to restore it, even as millions more people moved into the watershed.
For better or for worse, we were going to learn some lessons, important for the whole planet. Could an affluent, technologically sophisticated society forge a healthy and sustainable relationship with the rest of nature?
No one thought it would be easy or quick. Few thought we'd get this far down the road with restoration still so far away, with so little certainty as to meeting already postponed goals.
Much has gone right, or at least in the right direction, offsetting somewhat the increased environmental pressures from a population in the Bay's six-state watershed that has doubled since I was a kid.
And looking at what's worked suggests some common threads:
Air pollution, a big source of Bay pollution, has gone down. Sewage treatment technology has been able to remove dramatically more nitrogen and phosphorus from waste.
Striped bass rebounded handsomely from dangerously low levels, and it seems within our grasp to operate blue crab harvests sustainably.
Lessons learned? The federal Clean Air Act has real teeth and good science behind it, and pretty good enforcement by the EPA across state boundaries, even to sources outside the Bay's watershed.
The federal Clean Water Act has clear enough authority over sewage treatment to prod polluting municipalities; and water and sewer bills to users provide a reliable funding mechanism.
With striped bass, strong federal oversight was critical to a species that mostly spawned in the Chesapeake but was overfished throughout its multi-state migratory range.
With both bass and blue crabs, funding good science that included excellent long-term monitoring was key to giving politicians the backing they needed to make controversial decisions to curtail harvests.
So fund the science, collect the data, strengthen regulatory agencies and federal oversight, then set real deadlines with real penalties. Next election, ask your candidates where they stand on those.
The late Maryland Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., a founder of the Chesapeake restoration effort, tried hard for a less voluntary arrangement than the largely federal-state arrangement we chose to rely on since 1983.
Recently, there were efforts to remedy this, but it's too soon to tell how well they will work.
Mathias was a Republican, as were many key players in beginning the Bay restoration - from Arthur Sherwood, a founder of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to EPA administrators Russell Train and William Ruckelshaus, to Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh.
No one foresaw today's bitter partisan politics, with a Republican party almost culturally opposed to their environmental ethics of the 1970s. Nor have strongly Democratic states like Maryland proven to have all the answers to Bay restoration.
More regulation isn't the sole key to Bay progress. Across the watershed, a successful aspect of restoration has been protecting about 20 percent of all land in open spaces. It's a testament to an array of public and private groups using tools: from voluntary easements that give up development rights, to outright purchase.
There's also ample room for using the market forces extolled by conservatives to protect the environment. Removing regulations is usually seen as the way to do this; but removing government subsidies that encourage polluting behavior would work - and save money to boot.
And assigning economic value to nature's services that purify air and water would help markets send the correct (higher) price signals to pavers and deforesters. (Next month, I'll examine this further).
When Bay restoration began, the environmental movement largely assumed it could get good results by working within the prevailing economic and political systems. You heard a lot about 'win-win' - what was good for the Bay would also prove good for the bottom line.
But the pushback from two of the biggest Bay problem areas, agriculture and sprawl development, has in retrospect blown such easy assumptions away.
The development industry and its allies quite simply continue to own local decision-making bodies where most of the land use decisions are made, and made badly for the public interest.
Farmers, who contribute the most pollution to the Bay - and the most cost-effective pollution to curtail - still enjoy a good-guy image with the voting public.
That's because most (of the many I know) really are good guys; also because individually they don't pollute that much; and because they have done many environmentally good things, although often not the most effective things for Bay restoration.
To both sprawl and farm runoff we have a host of workable and affordable solutions; but not the politics or laws up to the task.
Particularly with agriculture, more straight talk to the public and farmers is in order. There's a disconnect between the great deal the science says needs remedying and the "mission accomplished" one often hears from agricultural bureaucracies.
It's good news that in the fourth decade of Bay-saving, we are at least working on almost all of the pieces of the puzzle, from pollution to overfishing to protecting habitat.
The bad news is that governments and environmental groups in the watershed continue treating growth - indefinitely expanding both the human economy and population - as an "uncontrollable" environmental impact, which can only be accommodated, never questioned or rethought, or even discussed.
Is the grand experiment then doomed? I don't expect to live long enough or grow wise enough to say.
I have grown wise enough to spend every moment I can outside exploring this still marvelous region from Cooperstown, NY, to the Virginia capes.
If readers get only one thing from this first Chesapeake Born column, and those that will follow monthly I would hope that it was this: Get outdoors, explore and learn what it would mean to live sustainably in a place.
Author's Note: The name of this column is taken from the album of Bay songs recorded by my dear friend and inspiration, the late Tom Wisner.