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The Chesapeake Bay Dead Zone Needs a Ref

Climate Justice

Chief Justice Earl Warren once said he always turned to the sports section of the newspaper first. “The sports page records people’s accomplishments,” he explained. “The front page has nothing but man’s failures.” The Chesapeake Bay has been in the news a lot lately, and its fans aren’t cheering. When it comes to Bay cleanup efforts, front-page failure – not a jolt of inspiration – is the order of the day.


Despite 25-plus years of study and effort, the Bay is dying. Its oyster population has been devastated, down to just 2 percent of its average level in the 1950s. Blue crab levels hover 30 percent below the annual average from 1968 to 2002. The cause of the Bay’s slow but sure death is all too well understood: Excess nutrients – phosphorous and nitrogen – from agriculture, urban and suburban runoff, and sewage treatment plants stimulate algae growth, which, in turn, sucks critically needed oxygen from the Bay’s waters. The result is a “dead zone” in the Bay that stretches to cover as much as 40 percent of its waters in summer months. 


Meanwhile, as if the state of the Bay’s health weren’t grim enough, EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal-state environmental restoration partnership that includes Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, and New York, have admitted that they are nowhere close to meeting the cleanup goals they set for the Bay in 2000. Indeed, this is the third time the Bay Program has missed such a deadline. And like a pampered college athlete behind on a term paper, the partnership simply negotiated a new deadline. As a result, goals established in 1983 and 1987 calling for a 40-percent reduction in nutrient pollution by 2000 were extended to 2010. Now EPA and the Bay Program say 2020 is more realistic. On Nov. 20, at the annual meeting of the Executive Council for the Bay Program, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine acknowledged that “the history of setting the ten-year goals has been, bluntly, a failure.” 


The core problem is that no one is accountable for the failure. CPR recently conducted a series of interviews with key stakeholders involved in Bay restoration efforts, and found an acute awareness of the weakness of how the program’s collaborative structure and its lack of regulatory authority impede progress.   As more than one interviewee put it, the emphasis on collaboration results in “lowest common denominator solutions” that pleases all of the states involved, with the result being the program is “captured by the states.” EPA should be a source of accountability for the partnership, but plainly has not been. Indeed, many stakeholders doubted it ever would be, because tackling the states head-on is simply too politically laborious. In short, Bay program partners are playing a voluntary game of cleanup without a referee to keep the clock, tally the score, and blow the whistle when rules are broken.


Bay program partners and EPA know they’ve become part of the problem, and have begun considering reorganizing the program to increase the effectiveness of restoration efforts. Some of their plans include creating an “independent entity” or “accountability mechanism” to monitor partner performance, and the Center for Progressive Reform has provided recommendations for an accountability framework. (Click here and here to review our recommendations.) At the Nov. 20 meeting of the Executive Council, program officials agreed to increase accountability by commissioning an independent group of scientists, possibly drawn from the National Academies of Science, to monitor their progress.  While that’s a good first step, what the partners intend is vague, and it could result in yet another report that gathers dust instead of a commitment to real accountability. It remains to be seen if a genuine referee with the authority to point out problems, allocate responsibility, and recommend corrective actions emerges.


Vince Lombardi once said, “We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.” For the past two decades or so, EPA and state officials have been saying the same thing. It’s time to take the Chesapeake Bay’s health at least as seriously as we take our sports teams’. The Chesapeake Bay dead zone needs a ref. Otherwise, restoration efforts will remain little league.


Climate Justice

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