Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Andy's Follies

The Chesapeake Bay is a shadow of its former self. Oyster and menhaden stocks are depleted, nutrients from front lawns and farm fields choke the life from the bay in the summer, and wetlands have been degraded across the watershed. The Chesapeake once supported local economies; but these days a new cottage industry has cropped up, one that threatens the future of the Chesapeake Bay as surely as pollution and overfishing: the business of blame shifting and finger pointing.

Developers blame farmers, farmers blame developers. Maryland blames Virginia's lax crabbing restrictions and runoff from the Susquehanna. Septic owners blame wastewater treatment plants, and recreational fishermen blame commercial fishermen. Everyone spends a lot of energy blaming someone else. Truth be known, no one in the Chesapeake watershed, stretching across six states and 64,000 square miles escapes blame for the current state of the bay.

A problem to which everyone contributes requires a solution to which everyone contributes. But given the pervasive culture of buck passing, this type of shared resolution eludes us. Various states, having all mostly failed in their individual efforts to clean up the bay, formed multistate alliances to achieve cleanup goals; those goals have gone unmet. There have been regional consortiums of federal, state, and local governments, stakeholder groups and non-profits working in concert to restore the Chesapeake, but again the results failed to materialize. What is clear is that no single state or any loose affiliation of states and stakeholders can achieve meaningful restoration of the bay.

What is needed now more than ever is forceful leadership. Leadership that does not incessantly redefine success, that does not sit back idly and watch deadlines come and go, and that understands the importance of accountability.

On May 12, 2009, President Obama decided that only the federal government could provide that leadership. With the signing of the Chesapeake Bay executive order a process was put into motion that had never been attempted before: an entire-watershed approach to cleaning up the Chesapeake. Each state in the watershed would be mandated to draft a Watershed Implementation Plan, requiring the establishment of clean water benchmarks, and a systematic review of the actions necessary to achieve those goals.

The federal government pledged to make a sensible financial investment in the cleanup effort, and to ensure that an independent evaluator was reviewing the progress made to make certain that dollars were being spent wisely, in ways that furthered overall restoration goals. Those evaluations were to be made at regular intervals and the data upon which they were based was to be made public.

Final phase 1 implementation plans were submitted by each of the states to the Environmental Protection Agency beginning in November of 2010. Maryland's plan, at 234 pages, is impressive in its scope and comprehensiveness; boasting aggressive reduction goals for nutrient runoff and sedimentation. But identifying problems is the easy part; solving them is the true challenge.

As so often has happened on the Chesapeake, however, politics got in the way. At about 10pm on a Friday night in February, the US House of Representatives voted on an amendment to a 2012 omnibus appropriations bill that sought to restrict the federal government from using any funds to “develop, evaluate, or implement watershed implementation plans for the Chesapeake Bay.” Eastern Shore Congressman, Andy Harris voted to cut off funding.

Harris’ campaign website states that protecting the Chesapeake is a priority which requires a “multi-faceted approach, dealing with urban runoff, sewage treatment plants, and agriculture runoff.” He goes on to say that since the watershed is made up of multiple states, there is an “important federal role in bay restoration.”

The watershed implementation plans are exactly what Mr. Harris said was needed to achieve restoration goals on the Chesapeake, and still he voted to cut the plans off at the knees. There are countless communities in Maryland’s First Congressional District that are counting on bay’s improvement for their very existence. Thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic impact, not to mention a centuries-old way of life, are at stake. Cleaning up the bay will require shared sacrifice and inspired political leadership. Regrettably, Mr. Harris’ does not appear poised to provide that leadership.

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