Wrong way on bay?

With little to show for billions of dollars and decades of cleanup effort, it's time to reassess

March 15, 2009|By Bill Thompson

For something that has been steadily dying for decades, the Chesapeake Bay promises to be a lovely corpse. Most of us who are fortunate to look out onto the broad estuary at sunset or witness the morning sky unveil the remaining pristine tracts of tributary and marsh are blinded by beauty.

Yet we know the bay is sick, because we are constantly reminded. For a decade, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the region's dominant enviro-educational organization, has issued annual report cards with disappointing grades. In addition, other nonprofit groups are recording how legislators vote on measures affecting the air, land and water qualities of the three states that most directly affect the bay.

These scorecards help gauge the extent of the bay's problems and identify some of the parties responsible for its poor condition. Yet after billions of dollars and decades spent trying to improve the Chesapeake, with almost nothing but bad news to show for the efforts, the scope of accountability must be broadened. Who's watching the watchdogs? Who's grading the graders?

Twenty-five years after policymakers and environmental groups ballyhooed the start of a massive restoration program, the Chesapeake Bay is no closer to stabilization and, in many respects, is worse off than before. The culprits continue to be silt, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, over-fishing, poor management and a failed attempt to balance what science tells us needs to be done with what we are willing to sacrifice. In the meantime, the numbers of green groups within the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed are almost too many to count. A few of them are bigger and wealthier than they've ever been. The cynics among us can be pardoned for wondering if the call-to-arms to protect one of our most valuable resources has become a clever epigram to open the checkbooks.

Whether we like it or not, the failed state of the Chesapeake and the crumbling economy provide us with a unique opportunity to reassess the choices we've made about protecting the bay. Clearly, our past decisions deserve the same low grades that the Chesapeake receives in the annual CBF report card. It is well beyond the point for environmental organizations and individual activists to ask themselves if they're really saving the bay.

Evidence that an overdue introspection already is under way came during a chilly outdoor press conference last December in Annapolis, where a small but credentialed gathering of scientists, former legislators and green advocates threw down the gauntlet challenging the effectiveness of past policies. Essentially, the so-far-nameless group advocated strong, mandatory regulatory controls rather than the nonbinding, voluntary approach used to date. Meanwhile, other voices are calling for a re-examination of how a burgeoning population - once considered a cow too sacred to scrutinize - will put bay cleanup goals further out of reach. Compelled by a collective frustration over failed efforts, these bold statements indicate a break from the status quo mindset of many environmental mainstreamers.

This soul-searching should not be limited to a handful of greens. Sadly, the Chesapeake region's environmental movement is hardly a movement at all. What once had been envisioned as a model of aggressive stewardship has morphed into a self-absorbed, self-perpetuating condition of stasis. Because of its stature as the de facto green leader and its impressive resources, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation could provide a profound example by beginning its own thorough introspection and by encouraging others to participate. Without new strategies and solutions - and perhaps even new movement leaders - the Chesapeake's decline will never be reversed. And when it gets too late to save the bay, all we'll have is its lovely corpse.

Bill Thompson, a former writer for The Baltimore Sun, is the author of magazine articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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