It’s easy to feel despondent about the progress of environmental cleanup. The harder we work to control pollution, the more intractable it can seem. We move forward with upgrades to major wastewater plants, only to stumble with whole towns on failing septic systems. Or lawmakers pass legislation to combat a major pollution or public health problem, only to weaken the law later or make exceptions that don’t solve the problem.
So when visitors from other countries ask me to talk about the successes of the Chesapeake Bay restoration, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. There is much that remains undone.
But compared with a lot of places, our region is so far ahead that even a cynic like me savors the moment. We do not have untreated sewage flowing into our streets, for instance, as they do in Brazil. (Though we do have plenty of routine sewage overflows in Baltimore, and they don’t smell so special.)
Our governments are talking to each other, making plans and pursuing best management practices. They are working with nonprofits and regulators to make change happen - something that Rio de Janeiro, as it prepares to host the Olympics, seemed to be just trying out when a Brazilian delegation met a few years ago with Bay policymakers and communicators.
Last week’s visitor, Haibo Wang, came from China. Wang works for Greenpeace. Specifically, he is working on their ocean campaign for East Asia. He is trying to figure out how to clean up one of the most polluted parts of his country, Bohai Bay.
China’s capital, Beijing, is known for its choking air pollution. The city temporarily reduced its smog for the Olympics, but it’s still quite severe. When in Beijing, Wang said, the first thing he does when he wakes up is check the air particulate counts. Then he knows if he can go outside, and if he should wear a mask.
China accounts for 75 percent of the world’s aquaculture, many of it in fish farms that pollute the waterways with bacteria and fecal matter. By 2014, 81 percent of the estuaries in China were considered unhealthy. Another reason for that is the discharge of 6.4 billion tons of sewage into the waterways, according to Haibo.
Though Bohai Bay has seen a 95 percent decline in fishing over the last 40 years, Haibo said, China still maintains a large fishing fleet, which travels to faraway seas to seek its catch. At 194,240 vessels, it is six times the size of Japan’s, 11 times the size of Korea’s, and larger than all the fishing fleets of Europe combined.
We talk about the Bay watershed as being too full of people, who contribute to the Chesapeake’s pollution with increased effluent from our sewage plants, with urban sprawl, and with fragmentation of our landscape. But in our 64,000-square- mile watershed, with its population centers of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, we have 17 million people. Beijing alone has 30 million. Now that’s crowded. The scale of the problem in China exceeds ours, by far.
The Chesapeake Bay Commission’s executive director, Ann Swanson, helped me explain to Wang the various state and federal laws passed to clean up the Chesapeake, and the significance of each. It seems so logical now to not have phosphates in detergents, for example, but accomplishing that in the 1980s took all the political capital anyone could muster.
And it made a huge difference. Other game changers included land preservation, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Farm Bill, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the establishment of the Bay Commission, and the advocacy of groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Of course, the Bay Agreements, even when they were voluntary, provided powerful guidance on how to shape policy. I called them a velvet hammer.
Such cooperation does not seem likely in Communist China, where Wang said “the laws hardly work, unless pollution happens.” Inefficient management, duplication over departments, and a lack of long-term science data all hamper the effort. But there is also the matter of political will, which is hard to muster when governors serve 10-year terms.
The Olympics can drive a cleanup, as it did in China nearly a decade ago, and as it’s doing in Brazil. But when the athletes left Beijing, the air got even worse, Wang said.
Despite all of those obstacles, Wang is optimistic. At 34, he is part of a younger generation trying to learn how to make change. That’s why he called me, he said. Greenpeace is consulting with a law group on a plan to clean up Bohai Bay. It won’t be easy, and it may not happen in his lifetime. But it is starting, and he is hopeful that Bohai Bay will be able to use the Chesapeake’s successes as a blueprint.
As he spoke, suddenly the large map of the Bay watershed on Swanson’s office wall felt small, and the tasks ahead doable. After all, look how far we’d already come.