Vital restoration not happening

ON THE BAY

Legacy: Two decades after a multistate agreement to restore the Chesapeake, the estuary is only holding its own. No one is articulating the vital questions that go beyond traditional thinking.

June 25, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

A FEW YEARS AGO, A friend had a plan to "celebrate" progress in restoring the Chesapeake Bay to health.

He would send a wooden coffin, drawn by a team of black mules, through the towns of the watershed, from New York state to Norfolk.

Citizens everywhere could symbolically bid goodbye to the bay that was and would never be again. Then we could get on with realistically managing the diminished ecosystem that is our tarnished legacy.

I'm not ready to hitch up the mules, but it wouldn't hurt to reserve a team, and maybe get some planks for that coffin.

Nearly two decades after the landmark, multistate agreement to restore the Chesapeake was signed, restoration isn't happening, nor is it clear it will.

Doubters should read Heather Dewar's comprehensive assessment of bay cleanup progress in The Sun of June 13. "How much has actually been achieved? Not a lot," she quotes a leading marine scientist as saying.

As the article notes, we have generally kept things from getting worse, even as population has increased. That is a considerable achievement, but holding the line at a markedly degraded level is scarcely restoration.

Dewar's reporting should come as no surprise. Last year, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a report card on bay health, ranking it at 27 on a scale of 100 (up only a few points from the situation in the mid-1980s, in the foundation's judgment).

What concerns me most is not how stubborn a systemwide comeback has been. It took decades of abuse -- in some cases a century or more -- to hammer the bay down.

What really bothers me, what has me thinking black mules and coffins, is the lack of vision from those involved in bay restoration -- the inability or unwillingness to grasp that real restoration might require outside-the-box solutions.

In Dewar's article, in the earlier bay foundation report, in a June 20 Sun article ("Smart Ways to Save the Bay") by Tom Simpson, a key state official in the cleanup, I see evidence our approach is too limited.

In all these cases, people are talking better science, more education and public awareness, smarter and tougher regulations and enforcement.

All of this is very good -- and not nearly good enough.

Who is really articulating the vital questions that go beyond these arenas? For example:

"It does not appear that we can have prosperity without growth," Simpson writes in The Sun.

Simpson (who is among the best we've got in the bay effort) gives a nod to the real issue: " if we're going to ensure our grandchildren's prosperity, we need to start thinking about prosperity without growth."

But then he goes on, like the rest, to list all the ways we can tweak the status quo to make things a bit better for the bay.

That's typical, and simply not acceptable anymore. Not with another 2.7 million people projected to move to the bay watershed by 2025.

Not when we're not even on top of the environmental impact of the last 2.7 million people who arrived here since 1970, when the bay took its big nose dive.

Not when pollution from ever-more automobile traffic and out-of-control sprawl development are two huge sources of the bay's decline.

Who says prosperity must be linked to growth of population? It is a notion we tacitly accept, without ever thinking about it, at every political level.

Grow or die: It is encouraged, overtly and indirectly by policies ranging from tax policies to economic development priorities.

But it is not necessarily true, unless places that actively eschew growth, from Oregon to Sweden, are fooling themselves in thinking they have some of the world's highest quality of life.

Or take another key bay question: Is it possible, 10,000 years after agriculture arose, to learn to feed ourselves without grossly polluting the environment?

Can the nation that sends men to the moon raise chickens without killing fish and crabs in the bargain?

As with most bay problems, we are doing more to clean up agriculture than ever. But until the past decade or two, we weren't doing much. Even now, all the effort and discussion is going into ameliorating the status quo, rather than looking into how many farm animals, and in what concentrations, the bay's rivers can ultimately tolerate (maybe fewer than now, in some cases).

Bay managers promise the public to reduce key pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus (which come from people and agriculture) by 40 percent by next year. They most likely won't, and growing human and animal populations seem sure to erode reductions we do make.

To be fair, if the managers proposed what is really needed, I'm not at all sure they would have the public's support.

Which brings me to a final issue that needs larger vision -- environmental education.

Fine efforts are under way, light years beyond even a decade ago. But they are far short of anything that will support real leadership in restoring the bay.

True environmental education creates widely shared values, an ethic if you will, that would enable us to move beyond regulation as the main means to our goals.

Simply adding environment courses to the traditional curriculum won't cut it. But basing the traditional curriculum around the environment does work, according to a recent Pew Foundation study of dozens of schools that are doing it.

None of the things I'm recommending are considered politically acceptable. But continuing to delude ourselves about bay restoration is not acceptable, either.

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