There is a growing consensus that a major commitment to education—to promoting an ethic of responsible stewardship among the nearly 16 million people who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—is necessary if all of the other efforts to “Save the Bay” are to succeed.

As population growth and development continue to place enormous pressures on the region’s natural resources base, we must learn how to minimize the impacts that we, as individuals, are having on the Bay. Our future depends upon our ability to use the Bay’s resources in a sustainable manner. This is as much a civic responsibility as voting.

Developing an environmentally literate citizenry that has the skills and knowledge to make well-informed environmental choices is clearly one of the best ways to raise generations who can be contributors to a healthy and enduring Chesapeake Bay watershed. Many believe that this can best be accomplished by expanding assistance for environmental education and training programs in the K-12 grade levels.

The state jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay region have enacted legislation to integrate environmental standards into the curriculum for particular grade levels beginning with the class of 2005. Likewise, several nonprofit organizations have spearheaded terrific efforts to create long-term, cohesive education programs focused on the local environment. Unfortunately, all of these efforts and programs are only reaching a very small percentage of the more than 3.3 million K-12 students in the watershed. Classroom environmental instruction across grade levels is sporadic and inconsistent at best, and relatively few students have had the opportunity to engage in meaningful outdoor experiences. What’s lacking is not the desire or will, but the resources and training to undertake more comprehensive environmental education programs.

Recently, I, along with my Maryland colleague, Barbara Mikulski, and Virginia Sens. John Warner and George Allen, introduced legislation that would establish an environmental education program for elementary and secondary school students and teachers within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This measure would provide federal and local grant assistance of up to $12 million a year to schools and nonprofit environmental education organizations in the six-state Bay watershed to support teacher training, curriculum development, classroom education, and meaningful Bay or stream outdoor exercises.

And, it would also enable the U.S. Department of Education to become an active partner in the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The Bay Program has pioneered many of the nation’s most innovative environmental protection and restoration initiatives. It has been a leader in establishing a large volunteer monitoring program; implementing pollution control programs, such as the ban on phosphate detergents and voluntary nutrient reduction goals; and conducting an extensive habitat restoration program. It is an ideal proving ground for demonstrating that the ABCs could help restore the B-A-Y.

Using the Chesapeake Bay and the local environment as the primary instructional focus will not lead only to a healthier, enduring watershed, but a more educated and informed citizenry, with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the environment, their community and their role in society as responsible citizens.