Carr-Tunes ~ by Steve Carr
A Modest Proposal for Chesapeake Bay
For more than two decades, we have been studying the Bay to death
The clinical definition of insanity is repetition of things that have failed with the expectation of positive results. Welcome to the Chesapeake Bay Program.
The Chesapeake Bay Commission was put together by Virginia and Maryland way back in 1980. That was the first time power brokers from north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line acknowledged something wrong with the Bay. But nobody could agree exactly what. So for the next 20 years, the studies and commission findings have rolled out in an endless stream of paper and politically correct double talk.
The first definitive study was released by the feds in 1983, and it identified nitrogen and phosphorous as the main culprits in the decline of the Bay. (Every subsequent study has reached the same conclusion in excruciating detail.)
That same year, the Chesapeake Bay Program was also created. It brought together scientists from throughout the Bay watershed and technocrats from the Environmental Protection Agency to administer and massage the message. At the same time, the governors from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the mayor of Washington signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement, a formal working paper that established clear goals and objectives for bringing back the Bay. Those were heady times. indeed. Everyone was full of enthusiasm, and we were all going to Save the Bay.
Everybody understood that it was going to take a boatload of money to fix the Bays problems, so our U.S. senators sprang into action, convincing Congress to appropriate about $25 million a year for the Bay.
Where Did All the Money Go?
Nearly a half a billion dollars have been dumped into the Bay Program over the last two decades, with arguably little or no improvement to the overall health of the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation issues its State of the Bay every year, based on nutrient levels, the extent of Bay grasses, the amount of riparian buffers and the numbers of various marine species. Every year the Bay gets a lower score, or barely holds its own. Where did all the money go?
Tracking the money is like walking through a crazy house of mirrors. When I asked Senator Sarbanes office, they said theyve been asking that same question for years with no clear answer from the General Accounting Office or EPA. Charlie Stek, Sarbanes chief of staff, pointed out that a little over $10 million goes directly to the states and the District of Columbia each year. Charlie chuckled as he said, Maybe youll have better luck tracking the money at the state level.
My next stop was at Mike Buschs office. I figured the speaker of the Maryland House ought to be able to get an accounting of the nearly $3 million dollars received by the state this year. A few weeks later, Mike faxed me a breakdown that proved to be both interesting and unfathomable.
Thirteen different pots of money, each requiring an equal match from the state, are controlled by different branches of state government. Each program has a fancy title, like the Nutrient Management Program Enhancement. I had to chuckle at that one, because it sounds like we are trying either to add nutrients to the Bay or to enhance the program. There are actually two separate programs under this title, one overseen by the University of Maryland and the other by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The total moneys spent on these two endeavors is in the range of $1.35 million.
Other programs are equally mystifying: the Special Rivers Project ($385,000), Programmatic Support for Marylands Tributary Strategies ($885,000), Technical Support for Marylands Chesapeake Bay Tributaries Strategy ($383,000), Agricultural Tributary Strategy Coordination ($137,000).
I couldnt help but notice how many of these Bay programs use the phrase Tributaries Strategies. I now read those words as a red flag signaling that there is, in fact, no actual strategy.
Less Talk, More Action
At this stage in the game, I couldnt help wondering if we shouldnt have taken all of this money allocated to fix the Bay over the years, cut out the middle man, and just dumped it straight into the water at the Conowingo Dam. It was this cynical thought that triggered an idea: Why dont we stop studying the Bay, and start really cleaning it up?
This isnt really a novel idea. Two similar restoration programs, in the Everglades and the Pacific Northwest, began with voluminous studies and compacts. But after a certain point, everyone agreed that it was time to stop talking and start fixing the water.
Scientists, who of course have a vested interest in perpetuating these studies, argue that if we dont know whats wrong with the Bay, then throwing all the money in the world at it wont make a difference. And that is undoubtedly true. But the plain and simple fact is that we already know in fact, weve known since 1981 that agriculture and broken sewer treatment plants are the two biggest villains. Why dont we start making a dent in these problems, rather than studying them ad nauseum?
I propose we change the whole way we allocate money for the Bay Program. From here on out, lets spend that $25 million a year on real trouble spots. Lets target the worst sewer treatment plants in the most strategic locations around the entire Bay and spend half the money fixing at least one plant a year. With the other half, we should pay farmers to adopt no-till farming methods and to plant cover crops and riparian forest buffers. I may not be a scientist, but I can tell you this: If we had adopted this strategy 20 years ago, we would be looking at a much cleaner and healthier Chesapeake Bay today.
Points of Perspective
I recently took two road trips that turned into wonderful counterpoints on saving the Bay. The first offered a glimpse into the future, while the latter harkened back to our past.
On December 9, I attended the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council down at George Mason University, where the original Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed 20 long years ago. The Council is comprised of the governors from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland as well as the Mayor of the District of Columbia. I was on a mission with Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer. As chair of the Local Government Advisory Council, she was delivering a briefing to this important body on behalf of all of the elected officials from the 1,600 jurisdictions and municipalities that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Ellen came ready to preach a new gospel, one which puts action ahead of studies and platitudes. She suggested that a larger portion of Bay funds be directed to local governments and community groups for on-the-ground activities. It was like a breath of fresh air to hear an elected official any elected official finally stand up and proclaim the Emperor has no clothes. It remains to be seen whether anybody listened.
Looking for some perspective, the day after the Executive Council, I went to Kent Island and stopped off at the old Bay Model, at Matapeake. The Bay Model was a grand scheme conceived in the early days of the Bay Program. In a building larger than a football field, the entire Bay was laid down to scale in finished concrete. Some of my construction friends from Annapolis spent years pouring and sculpting this theoretical Bay. I remember going to its dedication ceremony. Scientists said they could fill the model with water and use dies and fine-grained materials to represent different scenarios. Sediment transport, chemical spills, tidal fluctuations: You name it, they could duplicate the scene. It all sounded marvelous. A few years later, computers burst on the scene and the Bay Model at Matapeake went the way of the dinosaur.
Today, the Bay Model is a time-capsule testimonial to the failure of the Bay Program, mirroring the last two decades of Bay restoration efforts. The roof has caved in, and the corrugated metal sides of the building rattle in the breeze. House sparrows and starlings have taken up residence in the eaves. The model itself is filled with dirty stormwater and wind-blown trash. It has the feel of a ghost town.
Can the real Bay avoid the same fate?
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