These are my final words as I head off into retirement. After nearly 10 years of Bay Journal articles, I ask myself how to sum it up. Don’t I owe you, the readers, some sort of crescendo, some climactic statement?
It’s not that easy. It is a big complex subject, this restoration of the Chesapeake, and the answers are not readily reducible to an elixir.
But I can take a leaf from the 1992 presidential campaign, when the Clinton forces brought it down to “It’s the economy, stupid!” Applying that to the lessons of the Bay, I can boil it down to three messages:
“It’s the fish, stupid!”
You have to focus on what the people care about, and their measure of a healthy Bay is the profusion of fish, shellfish and other living organisms, including the reefs and grasses.
Water quality is a necessary ingredient, and what we do on the land, in the air and along our rivers and streams must remain a focus of any successful effort to provide the waters to support that life.
But we cannot forget the equally important task of managing those living resources, both to assure that, once clean, the waters have something to support, and that healthy stocks and reefs and grasses can help in the recovery through their natural filtering and absorbing processes.
We can take pride in the way the new Chesapeake 2000 Agreement calls for an ecosystem-based multispecies approach, but achieving it will be a major challenge.
“It’s sprawl, stupid!”
We are making progress on all fronts but one. The air is getting cleaner, the treatment plants and other point sources are getting remarkable results, the agriculture community is getting it done, and the grasses and fish are slowly struggling back. But in place after place, these gains are being offset by increased pollution from urban runoff and septic tanks. Both are tied to development patterns, and both are controllable with the right kind of urban expansion policies and low-impact development practices.
The problem is exacerbated by an anti-growth movement that tries to increase lot sizes and requires over-engineered infrastructure to drive up costs and keep numbers down.
We can take pride in our new land preservation and sprawl reduction goals. But they will never be achieved until we change current development patterns and the attitudes that drive them.
“It’s the Susquehanna, stupid!”
The Susquehanna River is nearly half of the freshwater flow into the Chesapeake, is the overwhelming determinant of water quality down to the Potomac inflow, and remains the number one driver of Bay conditions all the way to the Atlantic.
Maryland and Virginia can make progress in their tidal rivers, but the mainstem of the Bay will never recover without Herculean efforts by Pennsylvania in the Susquehanna.
Yet we seem content to treat that river like all the others, allocating resources and measuring progress as if the Susquehanna were just one among many sources. While that may make political sense, it means we are going to be wasting a lot of money and effort on other rivers to get what we need done in the Susquehanna. This is not to say we don’t need to keep working everywhere; but a realistic strategy would throw proportionately more effort behind the job to clean up the Susquehanna.
Having said all that, where are we today in the cleanup? We need to try to separate image from reality.
There are those who say nothing is happening, and those who say great progress is being made. There are those who say only regulation will do it, and those who say it must be a voluntary effort. And there are those who say it can be done within current budgets, and those who say all the money in the world can’t turn the Bay around.
The truth is that it is happening, but at too slow a pace. The truth is that the threat of regulation is an important spur to cooperative efforts. And the truth is it will take a lot more money than current political leaders have been willing to admit or allot to the cause.
But if we can do it — in the face of enormous pressures to absorb forests and farms with development — in the face of present values that favor living ever-farther out in ever-larger houses on ever-larger lots and driving ever-larger vehicles ever-longer distances — in the face of commercial fishing interests that are obsessed with this year’s harvest instead of the next generation’s livelihood — and in a watershed with 10 times the land to water ratio of the next closest estuary on earth — if we can do it here … then nobody else has an excuse.
This is at once our burden and our legacy — that we achieve success against odds so great that nobody else can back away from the task, anywhere else on earth.