Much like the beleaguered Bay itself, the Chesapeake Bay Program continues to exhibit growing and more frequent “dead zones.”
The most obvious and dangerous threat to the once-heralded collaborative’s survival as a viable public-private partnership, is the lack of a conspicuously passionate advocacy.
In Virginia, at least, were it not for the steady dialogue and comprehensive reporting delivered by the Bay Journal, Virginians wouldn’t know that the Chesapeake Bay Program functioned at all.
The explanation for this sorry state of affairs is pretty straightforward: There is no concerted effort by Bay Program leaders to effectively advocate for accountability and follow-through on actions stemming from its commitments and public announcements.
While much of the criticism leveled at the Bay Program lately in the name of accountability and performance or results may be somewhat over the top and misplaced, there is certainly missing anything approaching a targeted, Baywide effort to convert commitments into results; definitive and costly scientific data into policy; and clear, rational justification into real budget priorities in real time.
A striking example of this failure to deliver essential advocacy for adherence by state partners to long-established Bay Program commitments commanded center stage in Virginia this August. That’s when the Virginia Marine Resources Commission had a final rehearing for the city of Newport News in its bid to revisit its petition for a permit to construct an intake structure under the Mattaponi River for the ill-conceived King William reservoir.
Even in the face of identified, known, and quantified significant adverse impacts to multiple Chesapeake Bay living resources, including exemplary freshwater marshes and wetlands, moratorium-protected anadromous fisheries, the highest quality freshwater creeks, streams, and tributaries, sensitive shoreline soils and fossil-rich riverine slopes—the list goes on and on—the city’s project proponents had their way, and in the end the VMRC reversed their previous and courageous 2003 denial decision.
Curiously, there was not even one Bay Program spokesperson, professional, bureaucrat, or defender that uttered a single word in defense of the Bay and Virginia’s trust obligations as a Bay Program partner. Even when, in this case, the 500-plus acres of forested wetlands represents the greatest single net loss of wetlands permitted in the watershed since the adoption of the Clean Water Act a quarter century ago!
Sadly, this all came about in spite of the VMRC’s own senior staff objections and counter-recommendations and the admonitions and no-go recommendations from the commonwealth’s brightest and best fisheries experts at Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
When all was said and done, the VMRC’s reversal clarified for project opponents that, as feared, the state agency singularly charged with protecting Virginia’s ever-dwindling Baywide fishery resources had capitulated, opting for self-preservation in the face of an overt and unabashed political pressure campaign orchestrated by the city’s elected General Assembly senators and delegates.
Where during the testimony in August were the Bay Program champions, those who stood to lose the most, and for whom blatant commitment failures such as these in Virginia must be deemed unacceptable?
Where were the regional collaborative’s leaders who could speak to the critical obligations that Virginia must not abandon if the Bay’s restoration is to become something more than a jobs program for a dwindling number of Annapolis insiders?
Where were those who might stand up alongside Virginia’s Gov. Mark Warner and Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy, providing for them the necessary intellectual and fiduciary argument that Virginia’s Bay Program commitments demand, and the political support that each evidently needs and requires?
The short answer is that those folks and that mission simply don’t exist. There is no priority action agenda or supporting budget for advocacy in support of partner efforts to hold the line whenever resources are at stake, nor are there any envisioned or planned in the immediate future.
For all of its elaborate and sophisticated policy-making expertise and process, budgetary fairness tradition, and of course that collaborative structure that is the envy of estuary programs across the United States and the world, when the stakes are the highest and the chips are down, Bay Program commitments seem increasingly irrelevant as the once-assertive voices for protecting the Chesapeake’s resources are increasingly silent.
It should be no surprise that new Bay Program initiatives handed down from Annapolis policy-makers appear to be dead-on-arrival, and that more than ever, partners look upon the decaying bones of once-heralded documents like Chesapeake 2000 as little more than laundry lists of once-important goals and objectives that lack legitimate staying power, real bite, and truly beneficial or effective support for partners from above.
So, it was with some understandable cynicism that I read through newspaper accounts describing Virginia’s September foray into the latest Chesapeake resource problem, as the Warner administration’s natural resource community from the highest levels of leadership spoke of their shared plans to deal with the problem of invasive species.
In turn, each spoke to their agency’s spin on the problem, and to their strong dedication to squarely address this very important issue now rather than later, while Secretary Murphy urged the speakers and participants to not fail to grasp the fact that there is no money for this work, nor is there expected to be any soon in Virginia, the significance of the issue notwithstanding. It all sounded hauntingly familiar to me, and desperately so.
In a noteworthy twist of irony, key speaker/presenters from the Departments of Forestry, Game and Inland Fisheries, and Conservation and Recreation who spoke to the gravity of the invasive species concern issue will be asked by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to sign off with other state agencies in the coming weeks to certify that the city’s reservoir scheme—anadromous fishery resource impacts and egregious and unthinkable wetlands losses notwithstanding—meets the test of federal consistency with Virginia’s Coastal Resource Management Program!
Even now, there is yet another opportunity for Bay Program leadership in this sad tale. Should Bay Program officials elect to change their stripes, albeit late in the game, each should be informed that—somewhat contrary to expectations and the presumption that business as usual will prevail in this landmark permit case—the DEQ announced on Sept. 14 in Newport News that a public hearing on the consistency certification question for the King William reservoir will be convened.
Also at issue will be detailed attention to the myriad permit regulations of various commonwealth agencies as they apply to King William County, the jurisdiction where the reservoir is proposed to be located.
Unfortunately, King William citizens and community and government leaders are powerless to halt a boondoggle public works project imposed upon them by the city; a project they have wanted nothing to do with for almost a decade after educating themselves as to the associated multiple adverse impacts.
But then again, hey, you never really know what’s next in Virginia. If it should come about that this new and trendy invasive species effort meets a fate similar to earlier grand strategies and comprehensive management plans alleged to battle wetlands loss; control and reduce sprawl; prevent forest fragmentation; protect our fishery resources; or clean up nutrient-overloaded rivers, we might just catch something of a break here on the Mattaponi River.
It could just turn out that, down the road, after years of strategizing and pontificating to no avail about the imminent threats and serious resource risks that invasive species pose to Chesapeake Bay and Virginia, hoards of preventable, highly fecund, and yet uncontained zebra mussel populations will find their way through the waters of the York River system to colonize and encrust the inlet pipes’ mesh screens of the city’s VMRC-permitted intake structure, ultimately rendering unto Caesar that which is his due.
Something tells me that should that bizarre fate not actually befall the pristine Mattaponi River, it will not be because attentive Chesapeake Bay Program managers launched and sustained a viable outreach and advocacy effort to drive home their message, encouraging and informing program partners that continued failure to meet shared Bay commitments is no longer an option. I hope that I will be proven wrong.