In the mid-1990s, the chair of the Local Government Advisory Committee—in a Bay Journal editorial—pointed out five ways that the Bay Program could support an increasing level of local government involvement in Bay restoration initiatives. These included greater recognition and support of local accomplishments; the need for information and technical assistance; education about restoration for our constituents; the need for a greater sense of local “ownership” of restoration objectives; and a sharper focus/vision for the future Bay watershed.
Fast forward 10 or so years. An updated Bay agreement, Chesapeake 2000, includes at least 22 references to local governments, a direct result of an aggressive effort by localities in the watershed to gain recognition as partners in the effort to clean up the Bay. Local accomplishments, and there are many, still need more recognition and support.
One bright spot seems to be that the education of constituents is making an impact. More people are talking about restoration, asking questions and volunteering for projects.
A Virginia General Assembly lobbyist noted that, last year, more delegates were beginning to ask questions about the Bay, something that hadn’t happened before. That’s a move in the right direction.
Since 1988, LGAC has strived to be a voice for local governments in the Bay Program.
This is a particularly challenging task given the significant differences in local (and state) governmental structures in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Because these state jurisdictions have ultimate responsibility for providing leadership and funding to ensure that commitments are achieved, positive interaction between states and their local governments is critical.
For a long time, the Bay cleanup program was voluntary but, as it becomes more regulatory, local governments are recognizing not only what they should be doing, but what they have to do.
The bar has been raised: new wastewater permits with first-time nitrogen effluent limits, nutrient trading programs and new stormwater management requirements.
As chair of LGAC, I agree with the other committee members that we need to raise the urgency of taking action at the local level among the more than 1,600 local governments in the Bay watershed.
No longer is the discussion philosophical; the questions for local elected officials are sobering: What are the consequences of failing to meet the 2010 deadline? What are the benefits to us locally if we take voluntary action today to reduce nutrient and sediment loadings? How can we finance new initiatives in education and enforcement of on-lot sewage management, low impact development and land conservation? Do local governments have the information they need to make fully informed decisions? Are too many decisions made on limited economic grounds? How can local governments decide not only where they don’t want development, but where they do?
I have seen the positive potential of local government actions. As I testified before the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last spring, not every action is expensive—many local policy decisions can go a long way toward watershed protection without a budget line item attached. But they often take a change in mindset and political will.
To truly accelerate watershed protection at the local level, LGAC believes that the following must take place:
- Clear strategies for local governments in each of the signatory jurisdictions. Local governments must be involved in building these strategies, not just in their implementation.
- An accelerated outreach program, funded by both federal and state funds, to address the technical and financial needs of local governments. While an urbanizing Virginia county like Fairfax may have access to necessary technical resources, a smaller, rural county like Westmoreland does not.
- State or regional leadership in generating creative financing solutions at the local level to support stormwater management programs, water quality education programs and the integration of watershed management and land use planning. The Blue Ribbon Finance Panel report contains some excellent recommendations that should be pursued.
- More peer-to-peer assistance among local governments.
- A unified voice before Congress and the respective state legislatures that focuses on successful programs that can help local governments meet their responsibilities.
Promising initiatives are in the works. A network of service providers for local governments in the Bay region, called Chesapeake NEMO, modeled after other NEMO (Network for Education of Municipal Officials) programs is beginning to take shape. The network will deliver coordinated technical help and leveraged financial assistance for communities to implement sound land use planning and watershed protection.
It is also encouraging that the Small Watershed Grants Program will offer more long-term support to projects.
Cleaning up the Bay is a shared responsibility between local, state and federal partners, and local governments are committed to building on our successful efforts to further protect and restore local water quality and the Bay.
In the finance panel report, former Virginia Gov. George Baliles noted that the Chesapeake Bay is at a turning point. The population is growing, forests are disappearing and restoration efforts are sometimes overtaken by current trends.
Time may be running out, but local governments are not running away. We are all in this together: the Washington civil servant, the Virginia technology worker, the Pennsylvania farmer, the Maryland waterman, the long-time resident and the new Americans.
Finger-pointing won’t clean up the Bay; working together just might.