A few months after starting his new job at the Bay Program, Bill Matuszeski believed that oysters were poorly managed in the Chesapeake, and decided to let people know what he thought.
He wrote that there were three reasons to manage the Bay’s oysters: to provide a commercial harvest; to protect a highly valued traditional way of life in the Bay; and to restore the oyster’s role in the Bay’s ecology.
“Yet,” he concluded, “for a variety of reasons, current management regimes focus almost exclusively on the first reason, barely admit to the second and essentially ignore the third.”
That lengthy “Notes from Bayside” Bay Journal commentary infuriated some managers; one Maryland department head wrote “bull” across the top when he read it.
Matuszeski — universally known as “Bmat” — has rarely been accused of subtlety when it came to advocating what he thought should be done to restore the Bay. He once suggested that Fairfax, VA was becoming a “pariah of the Chesapeake” for balking at a wastewater treatment plant upgrade.
After a decade of cajoling, irritating and sometimes even charming — he used to deliver flowers to former Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Becky Norton Dunlop, whom many thought hedged on environmental commitments — Matuszeski retired in April as director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office.
Named to the post by former EPA Administrator William Reilly in November 1991, he oversaw the Bay Program for more than half of its 18-year history.
In an interview on his final day on the job, Matuszeski remained outspoken, warning that the public must keep watch ön bureaucrats who would undermine cleanup commitments, saying Pennsylvania must face up to “walloping big” nutrient reductions, and acknowledging that it’s questionable whether the Bay Program will meet its 2010 goal to clean up the Chesapeake.
At the same time, he took pride in accomplishments of the past decade, and expressed confidence that the public remains committed to restoring the Bay and its watershed.
The most important development during his tenure, Matuszeski said, was the move toward managing the Bay as an ecosystem, where the land, air, water and living resources are managed together.
When he arrived, the Bay Program was largely a water quality initiative focused on reducing the amount of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus entering Chesapeake. The assumption was that once the Bay was cleaned up, fish, shellfish and waterfowl would rebound. Now, it’s increasingly recognized that fish and shellfish must be better managed — not only to rebuild their populations, but also so some species, such as water-filtering oysters, can help to clean the Bay.
“I think people are finally at the point of realizing that it isn’t going to be water quality improvement alone that is going to get the living resources back,” Matuszeski said. “I think we are going to end up leading the country in the ecosystem approach.”
The Chesapeake 2000 Agreement reflects that emphasis. While still pursuing nutrient reductions, it also calls for a tenfold oyster increase by 2010, and developing “multispecies” management for fish to account for interactions between species, such as striped bass, menhaden and blue crabs.
In an interview that took place when he began his job in 1991, Matuszeski had predicted that addressing issues of air pollution and fish management would be important parts of the Bay restoration effort. Besides dealing with fish management, the Bay Program has played an important part in highlighting the role air pollution plays in degrading coastal water quality — something air regulators have gradually begun to recognize.
Beyond progress in those two areas, Matuszeski said the Bay Program was advancing in an area he hadn’t predicted.
“The one thing I didn’t admit to you 10 years ago,” he said, “was that my real secret longing was to deal with the land use issue, and I’m really pleased that we have been able to do that in the new agreement and get at the issues of sprawl and land preservation and the role of forests and farmland in preserving and restoring the Bay. That to me is a real bonus.”
Matuszeski, who lives with his wife in a row house in Capitol Hill in Washington, has long complained about the impact of sprawl, both on water quality and in the degradation natural landscapes and traditional communities. He rails against the trend toward “McMansions” that are popping up throughout the watershed, whether along the Bay, or in forests and fields.
That concern is reflected in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, which for the first time sets quantifiable land use objectives for the Bay Program, including a 30 percent decrease in the rate of sprawl by 2012, and the permanent protection of 20 percent of the watershed as open space by 2010.
Arriving at an agreement on those goals so they could be signed by the Chesapeake Executive Council — consisting of the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures — was often difficult.
Heading the Bay Program was the only non-politically appointed position for Matuszeski, who spent most of his 34-year government career in politically appointed positions dating to the Nixon administration. Yet, he quips, securing agreements between so many states, as well as an array of federal agencies, made it “the most political of them all.”
He disputed any notion that political backing for the Bay cleanup has declined. “I think we always tend to look back with the sense that ‘back then, we had real political leadership.’ But in fact, I think there has been consistently strong political leadership. I would stack up today’s Executive Council against any Executive Council in terms of that leadership.”
But he is more skeptical of state and federal bureaucracies, where he said goals and objectives are often weakened. Attaining the lofty goals of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, Matuszeski said, depends on whether the public gets involved and holds agencies accountable. If the public doesn’t, Matuszeski predicted, bureaucrats would seek to scale back the goals.
That’s what happened after the 1987 Bay Agreement was signed. The agreement called for a 40 percent nutrient reduction, but officials later changed the goal to a 40 percent reduction in “controllable” sources. Then they narrowly defined those sources. The result: the 40 percent reduction turned into a 20 percent reduction for nitrogen.
Likewise, after the Executive Council agreed to plant 2,010 miles of forest buffers by 2010, agency officials later determined the goal meant 2,010 miles on one side of a river: planting a mile on both sides would count as two miles of buffer.
“The bureaucrats will always try to find a way out of the goals,” Matuszeski said. “They will always try to redefine the goals, much as they did the 40 percent goal, and they will always try to obfuscate whether they are making progress toward it. So it is very important that the public hold them accountable. Because the more the bureaucrats learn they can get away with, the more they try to get away with.”
But he said achieving the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement goal of removing the Bay from the EPA’s impaired water list by 2010 will be a true challenge. Accomplishing the goal will probably mean that more nutrient reductions will be needed in the next nine years than took place during the past 14. Whether that will happen, he said, “depends.”
“It depends on whether or not we are willing to make the necessary investments in point sources, it depends on whether or not we really get cracking on stormwater. It depends on whether or not we find some solutions for how to export a lot of manure out of the watershed, either through reprocessing or other means. We just can’t continue to use the manure on the land as much as we do in a lot of areas of the watershed. I think those are the big depends.”
When he arrived at the Bay Program in 1991, it was in the midst of a re-evaluation of its 40 percent nutrient reduction goal. Matuszeski said he hopes that when the Bay Program sets new nutrient reduction goals for tributaries in the next year, it does not repeat errors made a decade ago.
A big mistake of the re-evaluation, Matuszeski said, was “we took the easy way out in the equity issue.” Instead of focusing nutrient reduction efforts in areas where they would have the biggest impact on Bay water quality, officials concluded they would seek the same percentage reduction from all rivers.
“We knew full well that there were some rivers that were far more important than other rivers, but we didn’t want to deal with that, because we thought that we couldn’t handle the equity side of things,” Matuszeski said.
“I think this next round we can’t make that mistake because we are going to have to take such substantial nutrient reductions that if we made everyone go as far as the Susquehanna, we’d be wasting billions of dollars. The Susquehanna is just going to have to take a walloping big percentage of the load reduction because of the impact it is having on the Bay.”
Half of the freshwater entering the Chesapeake, and about two-fifths of the nutrients, comes from the Susquehanna River. It is the most important river in determining the Bay’s water quality, especially in the portion north of the Potomac.
While Pennsylvania led all of the Bay states in the 1990s in requiring nutrient management plans for large livestock operations, Matuszeski said that law has since been outpaced by actions taken in both Maryland and Virginia. “Pennsylvania is really the weak link in the point of view of regulatory programs now. And that is going to have to probably change.”
Unlike Maryland and Virginia, Pennsylvania does not touch the Chesapeake. But there is a payoff for the state, Matuszeski insisted. Many actions taken in Pennsylvania to help the Bay will mean protecting local water quality and rebuilding healthy streams.
“I think that this ultimately benefits the local community, and ultimately benefits the local economy because they can really build up around those restored streams something of an ecotourism business,” Matuszeski said. During his time at the Bay Program† he canoed the Susquehanna while participating in the annual “Susquehanna Sojourn” sponsored by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Matuszeski said the public in the past has shown it is willing to support a clean Bay. But he acknowledged that this commitment will be tested in coming years. Meeting the clean Bay goal will mean increased costs for wastewater treatment plant upgrades and for stormwater controls at new and existing developments. People will be encouraged to live in more compact developments to reduce to sprawl, to drive less to reduce air pollution, and to limit the use of lawn fertilizers to control runoff.
“The public is willing to make certain sacrifices for a clean Bay,” he said. “They were willing to enact phosphate bans in the face of detergent companies that said they will never have a white shirt again. They are willing to press for more mass transit, they are willing to argue for more oyster reefs.
“I think the question is whether or not, ultimately, the public is going to be willing to make the kinds of sacrifices that may be necessary. And I don’t think we’ve convinced them yet of what those sacrifices are. They haven’t really had to meet that challenge yet. So it isn’t really clear if they are willing to do it.”
As for his future, Matuszeski plans to do some writing and consulting work. But he won’t leave the Bay behind: He plans to join the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Board of Directors and would like to work to more fully engage groups, particularly builders and foresters, in the Bay cleanup.
“The more I learn about the constraints that builders are encountering from local governments in terms of low impact development, the more I learn about forestry practices and how they can help the Bay, the more I am convinced that we have not done the job of really building coalitions with those people,” he said. “And I see that as an important job that lies ahead. And that is something that I may be able to help with.”
Matuszeski, who earlier wrote a book “Gritty Cities” with his wife, may even write about the Bay, including a possible book based on his “Notes from Bayside” columns. Although some viewed Matuszeski as a loose cannon — criticizing state, local governments, fishery agencies and even the EPA — he said the column was a good thing.
“It’s a very healthy exercise to be forced to think long-term once a month, otherwise you spend all of your time in the daily trivia. And, it helps your mind a lot, I think. I recommend it to whoever follows me. But I’m also pleased to not have a monthly deadline.”