After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

2012: Changing the Dialogue About Chesapeake Restoration

(This is the first in a series of posts on What’s It Going to Take?: A look at how the environmental community can regain the initiative and build the political will necessary to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.)

(Posted by Bill Dennison)

What's It Going to Take?Our New Year’s resolution for 2012 should be to improve our public dialogue about Chesapeake Bay restoration. Instead of public arguments, recriminations, and debates about the watershed models, we should be talking about innovative approaches to reducing nutrients reaching the Bay. Instead of arguing about how restoring Chesapeake will be too expensive, we should be embracing the new jobs that restoration activities create (see the Chesapeake Bay Foundation report “Debunking the ‘Job Killer’ Myth: How Pollution Limits Encourage Jobs in the Chesapeake Bay Region”). Instead of bemoaning the difference between current conditions and the “good old days,” we should be celebrating the achievements that are being made with respect to realistic, short term targets.

So what are some ways we can improve our dialogue?

First, we should begin every discussion about Chesapeake restoration reaffirming our shared vision of having a healthy Bay supporting healthy communities. We need to remind ourselves that farmers do not want to over-fertilize their fields, people using septic systems do not want to pollute the Bay any more than people connected to sewage treatment facilities and no one wants to be an environmental vandal. People living in the Chesapeake watershed generally have good intentions.

Second, we should emphasize what can “I” or “we” do to improve Chesapeake Bay, rather than what “you” should do. No one wants to be told what to do, and having someone prescribing your actions, rather than allowing for innovative solutions, can backfire.

Third, we need to celebrate our achievements, even small ones, while tracking our progress toward the overall goals. This celebration of achievements should embrace new approaches to Chesapeake restoration, thus providing positive reinforcement for the right kinds of behavior and developing a collective learning about what does and does not work.

Finally, there needs to be a safe forum for vigorous debate about contentious issues. But following the debate, we need to establish what we agree on, and what we don’t agree on. The agreed items are ready for a consensus policy position, and the items that remain contentious can be designated for further research or testing.

What are some topics that we should be talking about? There are several examples that epitomize fresh new approaches to Chesapeake restoration and we should be talking about these approaches. One of these examples is the growing army of citizen scientists that the Riverkeeper/Waterkeeper groups have trained and empowered. These citizen scientists are collecting important, relevant data at scales that count, and then analyzing and communicating their data. Another example is the Healthy Harbors initiative for Baltimore Harbor, a coalition being led by people in the private sector, supported by city, county and state governments. Having business leaders embrace bold, ambitious goals like obtaining a “swimmable” and “fishable” Baltimore Harbor by 2020 is a breath of fresh air. Innovative approaches like floating wetlands, water wheels for trash removal are being tested. Another example is using events like film festivals (e.g., Chesapeake Film Festival), wade-ins and musical concerts in which environmental issues are presented in a fun and entertaining way, to expand the interested, informed and empowered citizenry regarding Chesapeake issues.

In conclusion, we have much to talk about regarding Chesapeake restoration, and this dialog should ongoing, robust, and constructive. Let’s make changing our dialog to be positive and forward thinking our New Year’s resolution for 2012.

4 Responses to 2012: Changing the Dialogue About Chesapeake Restoration

  1. This is terrific. I would suggest some of these posts get turned into Op Ed pieces for the Sun and Washington Post so they are viewed by a broader audience. In today’s Sun was a piece by Tim Horton; we expect to see a piece by Mike Hankin, driver of the Healthy Harbor initiative, appear tomorrow. We should be regularly sending pieces to the Sun and Post – from different organizations, different authors but all communicating messages about water quality, healthy communities, the Bay.

  2. I agree but the prescriptive approaches being proposed will likely not work. We need to take all of the money that will be spent on this initiative and let the free market propose projects that remove the most N, P and Sediment for the least amount of money.

    This type of market driven approach will have the biggest impact on cleaning the Bay and the least economic impact on the citizens of the watershed.

    Removing the most expensive N, P and Sediment just because it punishes the right group is not the answer. We can work together and all pay our fair share and it will be a whole lot less, and will likely achieve results!

  3. Thanks Bill. A very useful piece.

    I appreciate your call for a ‘safe forum for vigorous debate about contentious issues’. I’m not so sure, however, that I’d identify citizen science, the Healthy Harbors Initiative, or environmental events as contentious issues that require vigorous debate.

    My list would probably include nutrient trading, burning poultry manure for energy, and the idea that the environmental impacts of perpetual growth can be deferred perpetually.

  4. I agree with the need for a forum, but I would stretch that to mean a conference, a summit on the Bay, convening all the players for hashing out ideas, identifying differences and reaching agreements with commitments.

    This type of debating back and forth, including letters to the editor, OpEd pieces,etc, though useful, has not accomplished much over the years. Just look how long Tom Horton has been laying out the issues in the Sun!

    This forum is useful, but we’re preaching to the choir with the occasional dissenter weighing in. We need face to face discussions.