In 1972, I travelled from Iowa to Pittsburgh for a national student tournament. I barely remember the competition. By far my most vivid memory of that trip is Pittsburgh's tall and beautiful buildings turned black by air pollution.
Wide-eyed Iowa kids would take home different memories today. The old industrial city of Pittsburgh has evolved to something very different from what it was 40 years ago. National environmental laws and unavoidable economic realities provided the incentive. The vision, creativity and political courage of local leaders showed the way.
Much like Pittsburgh had to evolve to an economy based on clean air, the Chesapeake Bay watershed must evolve to a new kind of economy based on clean water.
In the big picture, evolving to a clean water economy is simply adapting to new realities, as people develop higher expectations for their family's health and their own quality of life. Earlier generations accepted raw sewage in the streets, tap water bursting into flames or huge rotting algae pads in rivers; we do not. Future generations will expect even more. But progress isn't self-fulfilling. Individuals and events control the direction and pace.
Last December's watershedwide total maximum daily load lays the scientific and legal foundation for the transition to a new economy, and the Phase I and Phase II watershed implementation plans provide the road map. But success will depend on the vision and political courage of professional and elected officials across the watershed. Designing and implementing ways to control pollution will create jobs and economic activity, but substantial investments must be made up front, some of which will involve raising new revenue from voters. Local officials and landowners stretching to find the needed funds will be the visionaries and heroes of the transition.
Some suggest that President Barack Obama or EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson dreamed up the clean water TMDL to make peoples' lives harder. But in fact, those two are only part of a much longer story. The year I visited Pittsburgh, Congress established a national goal that "the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters be eliminated by 1985." Forty years have been spent in a continuing struggle to achieve that national goal. The trend is positive, but progress has been slow, as those struggling to reach the goal have had to carry change resisters on their backs.
Those resisters often resort to absurd arguments to throw gravel in the path of change. A typical example was recently offered on Washington, D.C.'s public radio station by a spokesperson for the American Farm Bureau Federation, who said of the TMDL: "It would stop economic growth and development. It would stop jobs and the ability of people to afford higher water quality in the Bay."
That's bunkum, but hardly unexpected. The New York Times reported last year on the tactics of the cynically named Water Advocacy Coalition to kill another clean water bill: "'The game plan is to emphasize the scary possibilities,' said one member of the Waters Advocacy Coalition, which has fought the legislation and is supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Home Builders and other groups representing industries affected by the Clean Water Act. 'If you can get Glenn Beck to say that government stormtroopers are going to invade your property, farmers in the Midwest will light up their congressmen's switchboards,' said the coalition member, who asked not to be identified because he thought his descriptions would anger other coalition participants."
Those Congressmen and their allies forced the House to gut the Clean Water Act twice during its first 100 days, and yet another vote is likely in September. They are not to be taken lightly, but it's a rear guard action. The front line is elsewhere. All over the watershed, local elected officials, progressive farmers and landowners, developers, engineers and others are already hard at work being creative, taking risks and designing the clean water economy of the future. They should be celebrated.
I admired Jim Rouse, the late developer of Columbia, MD, and many other innovative places. He combined the best qualities of a hard-nosed businessman and a proud social transformer. Rouse once wrote, "Without vision, there is no powerâ€¦by building an image of the possible, we not only leap over a lot of roadblocks that would defeat us, we also generate a whole new constituency of people who want to see that image realized...what ought to be, can be, with the will to make it so."
Together, we must build an image of the possible, leap over roadblocks and help our economy to evolve to one that will be better for everyone. I deeply believe that we do, collectively, have the will to make it so.