One of the great challenges of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort has been the communication of an increasingly complex set of scientific issues to a large and diverse public audience.

Beginning in the late 1970s, a sustained campaign has been under way to meet this challenge that combines the skills, dollars, manpower and perspectives of federal agencies, states, local governments, research institutions and a host of nonprofit groups.

Early in the federally sponsored Chesapeake Bay Program, a grant was awarded to a nonprofit called the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Organized as a coalition of groups and set up as a neutral forum, the Alliance was an appropriate partner for the EPA and the states as they initiated attempts to define the scientific explanation for the Bay’s ills and develop consensus on a set of solutions.

The Alliance has worked for 25 years as the Non-Governmental Organization partner to the Bay Program and has developed an array of programs and communications pieces that educate people and make it possible for them to get involved in decision making and the implementation of restoration activities.

The Alliance’s most well-known publication, the Bay Journal, has won national awards for its excellence in science communication and has become a “must-read” newsletter for managers, researchers, legislators and more than 50,000 interested citizens.

The Alliance also pioneered the development of volunteer monitoring programs and hands-on restoration techniques for citizens.

River and stream watch programs throughout the Chesapeake watershed are modeled on methodologies perfected by the Alliance.

The most recent program, Restore Corps, aims to train leaders who can motivate community groups to take responsibility for habitat restoration at a very small scale.

The Alliance also runs a program called Builders for the Bay, which brings communities together with developers and local officials to discuss how zoning regulations and local ordinances might be modified to accomplish wiser development.

One of the significant aspects of the Chesapeake Bay outreach effort has been the emphasis on consensus building.

Advisory committees and task forces have been established over the years to address many difficult issues. Examples include riparian forest buffers, toxics mixing zones, goals for land preservation, funding options, the management of dredged material and fishing regulations. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, but all have demonstrated the importance of bringing stakeholders together with policy makers and scientists to understand complex issues and to develop courses of action that have a high probability of implementation success.

Having heard all of this, you may be wondering why the Chesapeake Bay has not yet been “saved.” Recent headlines have focused on major problems with some fisheries including oysters and menhaden, as well as higher than expected levels of nutrients in the Bay system.

Some wonder if all of the effort and the dollars expended over the last 20 years have produced any results at all.

In spite of years of work with farmers, agricultural sources continue to load the system with excessive nutrients and sediment.

Urban non-point sources, including the ever-present green lawn and miles of city streets, parking lots and rooftops, remain a “run-off control wilderness” causing urban streams and rivers to make the 303(d) list of impaired waters.

The Bay itself, conspicuously, is on that list and will be subject to enforceable total maximum daily loads if significant reductions are not achieved by 2010.

So what’s the problem? My view is that the science of what’s wrong with the Bay has been well-done. We have, no doubt, the most comprehensive knowledge of an estuarine ecosystem as exists anywhere in the world. The body of knowledge about the Bay and its 64,000 square mile watershed, continues to grow and be refined.

Indeed, multiple pollution reduction measures and management strategies have been put in place, resulting in significant environmental improvements.

We have also achieved a level of awareness in the citizenry that seems remarkable. It would be quite unusual to find a person who is not aware that the Bay is in peril, or who would say that that situation is unimportant.

Efforts to communicate and educate have yielded some significant results, including strong public support for policies designed to improve the Bay, such as the flush tax recently instituted in Maryland.

But neither excellent science nor widespread public awareness have been enough to produce the desired result. Clearly, something has been missing from the program to restore the Chesapeake.

It seems to me that several necessary components have only recently been recognized as essential for success. These are:

  • Adequate real-time monitoring to discover whether applied practices are resulting in the predicted water quality response
  • Enough money to get the job done; and
  • Behavior change secured by convincing citizens that acting in a manner that is good for the Bay is also in their own best interests.

Let’s look briefly at each of these.

First, monitoring. The Bay Program has spent a great deal of money to build a world-class set of models to predict how the Bay will act under various scenarios. As a management tool, the models have been useful and have pointed managers in the right direction. But they only attempt to replicate the real world, and without more actual monitoring at the edge of fields and in developments and at the headwaters of streams and the periphery of the parking lot, we cannot know well enough what is actually getting into the system or being effectively prevented from getting in.

And so our models seem to have overestimated the response. The Bay is not as clean as the models said it would be. This has discouraged managers and angered legislators and baffled ordinary citizens. More effort needs to be dedicated to monitoring, and then to turning the knowledge gained from real measurements into information useful to average citizens—tools such as report cards, indices and easy-to-read maps.

Second, money. The budget for the Bay restoration work has not been insignificant. The states and the federal government, as well as local governments, businesses, citizens organizations, farmers and academic institutions have all spent money and manpower.

Congress has been providing about $20 million of direct support a year to the Bay Program for more than a decade. Other funds to upgrade sewage plants; assist farmers to install best management practices; plant forested buffers; manage fisheries; and more have come from many agencies.

It would be easy to conclude that a lot of money has been spent to restore the Bay. A lot, however, is not enough.

A recent Blue Ribbon Finance Panel concluded that a minimum of $15 billion is needed to effectively tackle the giant problems that come with a growing population. The following is a quote from the panel’s report:

“Controlling the unremitting flow of nutrients and sediment into the Chesapeake Bay will require a bold new approach. Costs for new programs will range in the billions, and conventional mechanisms that could raise $100 million, $200 million or even $1 billion or $2 billion are simply not adequate to the challenge before us.”

The Panel concluded that, “while a range of smaller programs can play a key role, restoring the Chesapeake Bay will require a large-scale national and regional approach, capitalized by federal and state governments and directed according to a watershedwide strategy.”

One might conclude from this and other recent multibillion-dollar restoration efforts, like the Everglades program, that we need to put ecosystem restoration on a par with other expensive national priorities such as road building and defense—a status heretofore not afforded these issues.

The third missing component is an understanding of economics. Economists have been infrequent visitors at Bay Program discussion tables. It would appear that not only did we not recognize the real cost of the restoration job we tackled with such enthusiasm two decades ago, but we did not recognize the role economic incentives might play in causing the sort of behavior change needed to prevent ongoing degradation.

Policy makers are only now, and in my view very slowly, coming to realize that neither regulation nor voluntary efforts, together or alone, are adequate to the job.

The work of two new Nobel prize winners, Edward Prescott and Finn Kydland, may help. They have developed models to explain why certain types of public policies fail to affect individual decision-making while others succeed. In the commentary, “Economic research shows that sparing the rod spoils the Bay,” [December 2004], Prescott and Kydland’s work suggests that attention should shift from water quality models to economic models that can help to establish laws that provide a credible deterrent to decisions that harm the Bay.

The author of the commentary says, “it’s time for the Bay restoration community to decide to work within the market system by changing specific economic penalties and incentives, rather than attempting to override market forces with collective action.”

So while we have made progress in our effort to restore the Bay, it is clear the job is far from done.

In addition to focusing on science communication, the Bay community needs to communicate the real cost of a clean Bay. It also needs to figure out how to change behavior by putting the right set of incentives in place. And, it needs to learn the value of investing in adequate monitoring so that the results of public programs and private decisions will be apparent and communicable.

Without these components, the Chesapeake Bay may slowly perish.