There is an old joke about a fellow who lost a $20 dollar bill at night. He was looking for the lost cash under a streetlight when a good Samaritan offered to help. "Where did you drop the money?" The fellow pointed up a dark alley. "Why are you looking for the money here?" asked the good Samaritan. "Well," said the fellow, "because I can see better here."
In some ways, the state and federal Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts are like the unfortunate fellow who lost his money, except instead of a $20 bill we are looking for nutrient reductions. And we keep making more and more people look for nutrient reductions in the same well-lit places, even if what we are looking for may be found elsewhere.
For nearly 25 years we have been looking for nutrient reductions in the same places-source reductions from point and non-point sources-and asking those sources to secure the reductions using the same basic technologies, especially the same set of agricultural best management practices that we had at our disposal in the 1980s.
To make nutrient reductions happen, public agencies are expected to identify acceptable technologies and then spend millions of dollars each year subsidizing their installation. This goes on even though many of the technologies were never designed to be highly effective nutrient management tools.
After years of searching for nutrient reductions under the same light post, we are less than halfway toward achieving nitrogen reduction goals and a little more than halfway to the phosphorus goal.
Looking Beyond the Lamp Post
While we need more effort and innovation in source reductions, there is an entire class of nutrient removal opportunities that is overlooked or unfunded. In addition to limiting nutrients at the source, we can enhance nature's capacity to transform or remove nutrients already in the Bay's waters. Wetlands, for instance, are recognized for their ability to remove nutrients already in the water by storing and cycling nutrients. But there are many other innovations that are too often overlooked or viewed with suspicion.
Oysters are widely publicized "filters" of the Bay. While native oyster restoration is plagued with a multitude of challenges (predation by rays, habitat loss, disease, etc.), many entrepreneurs are finding that oysters can be grown in a confined aquaculture setting. These aquaculture oysters provide the same or more filtering services than their wild brethren. If watermen can be encouraged to expand these kinds of operations, more nutrients can be removed from Bay waters.
Some entrepreneurs are offering to invest in constructed systems that may enhance nutrient assimilation. Excess algal growth is the bane of the Bay, and people are experimenting by diverting nutrient-rich waters into specially constructed facilities to grow algae off-stream instead of in Bay waters and tributaries. The goal is to harvest the algae grown and sequester nutrients in the process. Proponents claim that algal harvest can remove nutrients at a lower cost than accepted point and non-point technologies.
Another entrepreneur has developed floating mats of wetland plants and material that can be placed in ponds, lakes and slow-moving streams. The mats, made of recycled materials, remove nutrients using processes similar to those of wetlands. Again, the proponents claim substantial removal rates at a low cost.
Furthermore, these entrepreneurs are not asking that their nutrient removal claims based on laboratory work and field experimentation be blindly accepted. In many of these projects, nutrient removal can be directly measured and verified-biomass harvest of oysters or in algal biomass, for instance.
How Can We Shed More Light on Our Problem?
These examples are only meant to be illustrative and represent some possible innovations that we know about. Are the claims true? Are there other nutrient reductions just waiting to be discovered in that dark alley?
We do not-and we cannot-know, but at this point, neither can anyone else. We don't know because we haven't created rewards for people to look beyond our lamp post.
What Should Be Done?
First, our programs need to focus on rewarding documented nutrient removal. Our current system cajoles people to use a limited number of activities from an official list of sanctioned practices. We partly subsidize investments in a limited set of means to nutrient reduction, rather than simply paying for the end itself.
A program that pays for nutrient reduction results, however achieved, would create a profit incentive to look for nutrient reductions in places beyond the lamp post.
Entrepreneurs who are offering new ideas on how to remove nutrients and improve Bay water quality that are not on the list are finding it a hard to make a living.
There is no program that would pay an algal harvest firm that harvests thousands of pounds of nutrients directly from the Bay, even if they can prove that it can be done for cents per pound.
Bay states offer farmers millions of dollars in subsidies for installing practices predicted to prevent nutrient runoff, but waterman receive no assistance to remove nutrients by expanding oyster filtration services.
And within the agriculture sector, farmers or farm technical advisers with new ideas for preventing nutrient runoff cannot receive payments for nutrient reduction services if the practice is not on the approved cost-share list.
Second, as a condition of making payments to entrepreneurs, the Bay Program and the states need a rigorous and reliable protocol to verify the nutrient removal claims of any new technologies. Such verification is critical for both public and private sectors. The public needs a way to verify claims of entrepreneurs who have obvious incentives to inflate the removal efficiencies of their product.
Also, entrepreneurs need a clearly defined verification process agreed to in advance so they make sound decisions about investments in innovative nutrient reduction strategies.
To our knowledge, there is no agency or opportunity in the Bay Program where a nutrient removal entrepreneur can go to verify a claim or certify a technology.
Currently, best management practices are vetted by a limited number of public sector analysts. While these analysts produce credible evaluations, time and resources limit their work.
The approved list is based on what we assume about the effectiveness of the practices-assumptions that are increasingly shown to be overly optimistic and that vary widely from place to place and situation to situation. Years later, the same BMPs are being evaluated and re-evaluated, while too often, new ideas languish.
Finally, as we spend billions of dollars trying to achieve water quality goals in the Bay, how do we know we are spending this money most cost-effectively? If we were to combine performance payments with performance verification, we would create nutrient removal competitions that would help us pick the best practice.
At present, we neither allow nor encourage the private sector to compete using new approaches and technologies to buy more reductions for our money. If the company selling floating wetland mats can remove three times as much phosphorus per dollar as a farmer can by reducing nutrient applications, perhaps we should consider allocating funds now spent on subsidizing the familiar practices for some wetland mats.
With the promise of being able to participate in the innovation race, entrepreneurs will swiftly invest private resources into research and verification efforts, easing the public load and expediting technological change.
We need to create the opportunity and the profit incentive for entrepreneurs to start building new light posts and illuminating the dark alley.
If we do, we might just find that $20 and the nutrient reductions.