Our Bay:  This Week's Take: A ray of hope for the Chesapeake Bay

By HOWARD ERNST, For The Capital
The Capital, Published 11/21/09

Courtesy photo
Howard Ernst, Ph.D., teaches at the Naval Academy.

When Barack Obama and John McCain addressed their respective supporters on Feb. 11, 2008, the day before the presidential primaries in Maryland and Virginia, both candidates carried on a longstanding tradition - they both pledged their unwavering support to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Speaking to a group of more than 17,000 supporters at the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland, then-Sen. Obama declared that "we cannot wait to clean up Chesapeake Bay."

Sen. McCain, speaking to a smaller crowd in Annapolis, promised: "I will do everything in my power to make sure we repair and improve one of the great national treasures, the Chesapeake Bay."

Forty-three years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson promised to make the restoration of the Potomac River, one of the bay's largest tributaries, "a model of beauty." In President Ronald Reagan's 1984 State of the Union address, he called the Chesapeake Bay "a special natural resource" and committed himself to its restoration.

President George H.W. Bush pledged to "revitalize" the bay. President Bill Clinton assured America that his programs would "help reclaim the natural beauty of the Chesapeake Bay."

President George W. Bush, prior to leaving for a fishing trip on the bay in October of 2007, took the opportunity to assert that his "administration is committed to protecting the environment that our sportsmen depend on."

The pledges of support are echoed by seekers of public office at every level in the bay states. To date the claims of support have been bi-partisan, overwhelming and ultimately inconsequential.

For more than a generation, the tradition has been for political hopefuls to pay lip service to pro-bay policies that are neither expensive nor controversial, while providing polluting industries with the tangible policy outcomes that they demand.

We have been promised the sun and the moon, but received a steady flow of feel-good environmental programs that were better equipped to generate public support than to address the pressing environmental problems of our day.

Hard questions, like how to pay for billions of dollars in stormwater controls, or billions more in sewage upgrades, or how to regulate the bay's single biggest polluter (agriculture) have been ignored or delayed, while lesser concerns were addressed. Even the programs that were directed at "the big problems" tended to be watered down to the point that they provided little improvement.

This began to change even before President Obama was sworn into office. On Dec. 3, 2008, an unprecedented event took place in Annapolis. A group of 20 distinguished Chesapeake bay scientists and policy experts crowded into a small room at the Maryland Inn to discuss the fate of the bay restoration.

The diverse group quickly agreed to a unanimous statement that declared that the voluntary/collaborative structures under the Chesapeake Bay Program had not succeeded and, as a consequence, the bay's health was declining. They insisted on a new approach, one based on the idea that clean water is a right of all citizens and that polluters should pay for their waste.

Three months later, the new Obama administration seemed to heed the call by appointing J. Charles (Chuck) Fox to a new position at the Environmental Protection Agency, senior advisor on the Chesapeake Bay. Fox has 25 years of experience as an environmental advocate, a regulator at EPA, and head of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, and a well-earned reputation as a hard-nosed champion of the Chesapeake.

Most felt no one was better versed in the problems of the bay than Fox, and no one was likely to push harder for the tools needed to turn around the failing restoration. But with the administration concerned with recession, wars and global climate change, it was unclear if Fox would have the political sway to achieve the regulatory changes that he favors and that the bay so desperately needs.

On May 12, 2009, President Obama issued an Executive Order asking the EPA to examine how to make full use of its authorities under the Clean Water Act to restore the Chesapeake. Four months later, the administration issued its first draft report and in November they issued a second draft report. The final report is due this spring.

Meanwhile, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland has introduced legislation that could close some of the loopholes in the existing Clean Water Act and significantly strengthen the EPA's regulatory powers.

Unlike the hollow promises of the past, the proposed changes aim to replace the existing voluntary pollution goals with legally enforceable pollution limits. Moreover, they address all sources of pollution, including powerful agricultural interests.

These changes are not more of the same. If successful, the proposals will fundamentally change the restoration effort, giving it a serious chance to succeed.

But make no mistake; those industries that benefit from the status quo are lining up to resist the proposals. It is time for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to put their feel-good environmental education programs on hold and to push back with ALL the legal tools at their disposal.

It's time to fight for the bay.

Howard Ernst, Ph.D., teaches at the Naval Academy. Portions of this article are adapted from his new book "Fight for the Bay: Why A Dark Green Environmental Awakening is Needed to Save the Chesapeake Bay." Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

(Revised November 2009)