by John Page Williams
Do you want a Bay teeming with healthy crabs, oysters and rockfish? Do you want clean water where you can swim safely, and quiet coves where you can drop the anchor and watch great blue herons stalking the shallows and osprey diving on menhaden? Of course you do. We all do. That's the easy part, the part everyone agrees on.
The hard part is figuring out how to get there, and how to pay for it. In those arenas we find considerably less agreement--although at least we now know what it might cost, thanks to an exhaustive study by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the results of which were announced in January. To make significant improvements in the health of the Bay, the commission estimates, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania will need to spend more than $18 billion over the next seven to ten years.
Yes, billion, with a b.
Given our current economic climate, nationally and regionally, you can imagine how that number has been received among fiscal conservatives. "Get real!" they say. "We can't spend that kind of money on something we aren't even sure is necessary!" Environmental advocates, meanwhile, argue that it's not only necessary but worth every penny of that $18 billion.
Where does the truth lie? Is this just another tax-and-spend scheme to keep bureaucrats, scientists and environmentalists in business, or is it a long-term investment in the economic vitality of our region? I believe it's the latter, of course, but I also believe we need to do everything possible to make sure we get our money's worth.
A Parable about Assets
Consider a waterman who buys a new pickup truck and a five-year-old workboat. The pickup is a simple work truck for which he pays $20,000. The workboat is wooden and very well built, 42 feet long, with a Cat 3208 diesel and a hydraulic pot hauler, priced at $60,000. The truck and the boat are the cornerstones of his crabbing business. If he's a smart businessman, he'll keep them both in good operating condition. Would it be unreasonable, over the next seven years, to expect him to spend $500 on the truck for oil changes, tune-ups, brake pads and tires, and $1,500 on the workboat for oil changes, fuel filters, hydraulic repairs, hull maintenance and bottom paint? That's only 2.5 percent of the value of the equipment-averaging out to only $72 per year for the truck and $214 per year for the boat. If he gets by that easily on maintenance costs, he'll be very pleased.
Now what is the Chesapeake Bay worth to our region? According to a 1987 study by University of Maryland resource economists, the answer is $678 billion. That figure takes into account everything from seafood businesses, tourism and residential property values to shipping channels and "ecological services" like natural water treatment and flood control. Adjust conservatively for inflation and some improvements in the Bay's health, and the number is now more like $750 billion. Under those circumstances, investing $18.7 billion (2.5 percent) in protecting and restoring its health over seven years is equivalent to our waterman's maintenance expenditures for his truck and boat.
"It's actually even more of a bargain in one way," says Tom Simpson, coordinator of Chesapeake Bay Programs at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland. "The comparison assumes a new truck and a workboat in good condition. The Bay is suffering from three hundred years of heavy population pressure, compounded by chronic neglect of its needs as an ecosystem. It's as if this hypothetical waterman drove the pickup one hundred thousand miles, carrying heavy loads, without an oil change or a tune-up. With the Chesapeake watershed's population at sixteen million and projected to grow twenty percent by 2030, there's no way the Bay can heal itself without a lot of help from us."
Warming to the pickup truck metaphor, Simpson says we first ruined the Bay's "shock absorbers"-wetlands, wooded floodplains and oyster reefs-and now we're expecting it to carry more nitrogen than ever, from agriculture, sewage treatment plants and urban-suburban runoff. "The current nitrogen load of around two hundred eighty-five million pounds per year is about six times the load in the year 1600," he says.
True, nitrogen is a fertilizer, but too much of it can throw an estuary out of balance, just as too much food can make a human being unhealthy. The Bay's current nitrogen load is the equivalent of a human consistently eating about 14,000 calories per day. You can imagine the health consequences of a diet like that.
Visions of the Future
Let's assess the situation, even if we're late doing so. What's the risk if we don't invest in the Bay? What might we gain if we do? For some specific answers, turn to Chesapeake Futures: Choices for the 21st Century, a 160-page independent report by the Bay Program's Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, published in January.
Chesapeake Futures examines four aspects of human activity in the Bay watershed: development and sprawl, forests, agriculture, and technological solutions. The team of authors makes its best educated guesses for the future, based on three scenarios: "recent trends" (business as usual), "current objectives" (mostly the commitments of Chesapeake 2000, the current interstate Bay agreement), and "feasible alternatives" (essentially applying the strongest suite of solutions currently available).
If "recent trends" continue, the report concludes, we can expect an eventual reversal of the modest improvements of the past 20 years. In those two decades, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's "State of the Bay Index" has improved from 23 to 28 out of a possible 100, but the index has declined back to 27 over the past two years. If we meet "current commitments," which are ambitious but achievable, we can expect the improvements to continue, with the index possibly rising to 40 by 2010, and providing us with a Bay like what was here in the 1970s-with twice as much grass and more summertime dissolved oxygen in deep water. Applying all the "feasible alternatives" could give us a Bay that's richer than most people remember, with a four- to five-fold increase in grasses (and thus in crab habitat) and much better oxygen conditions, taking us back to the Chesapeake of the 1950s.
Show Me the Money
The intermediate step--"current commitments"--is essentially the one for which the Chesapeake Bay Commission projects the $18.7 billion cost. So did that number come out of the air, or is there a plan behind it? What would the money pay for? How do we find the funds? And, like the waterman with the pickup and the workboat, how do we make sure we get our money's worth?
You can find the answers to most of those questions in the Commission's 32-page booklet on the subject, The Cost of a Clean Bay: Assessing Funding Needs Throughout the Watershed. Essentially, its plan is based on Chesapeake 2000, with its five major categories and 22 subcategories of specific commitments (a 10-fold increase in oysters over 10 years, for instance). The major categories are Living Resource Protection and Restoration, Vital Habitat Protection and Restoration, Water Quality Protection and Restoration, Sound Land Use, and Stewardship and Community Engagement.
Working over the summer and fall of 2002, Commission analysts met with scientists and state agency staffers to estimate the costs of meeting the commitments, including an intensive analysis of what will be necessary to reduce nitrogen and two other Bay runoff components that are also flowing in at junk-food levels: phosphorus and sediment. They estimated the costs state-by-state for each of the major categories and subcategories, as well as the income currently available for them. The good news is that they found $5.9 billion currently committed to Chesapeake 2000. The bad news is that it's $12.8 billion short of what's necessary, with the gaps broken down to $2.9 billion in Maryland, $4.8 billion in Pennsylvania, and $5.1 billion in Virginia. Look further and you'll find that the Commission analysts searched for funding from a wide range of sources, including federal, state and local government, as well as private sources. If you're beginning to see that the $18.7 billion figure is simply the total estimated cost of reaching multiple specific objectives in three states over seven years, you're right. As with any big project, it looks huge until we start breaking it down into its component parts.
It's worth noting that the Commission's analysis does not include the costs of meeting Chesapeake 2000 commitments made by the District of Columbia and new Bay agreement partners Delaware, New York and West Virginia. Those states and the District do not belong to the Commission, which exists primarily to coordinate Bay-related legislation in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Estimating roughly, D.C. would need to spend about $1 billion on water quality (mostly on the Anacostia River) and the tab would be about $1.6 billion for the three fringe states.
The authors of The Cost of a Clean Bay are careful to point out the limitations, as well as the benefits, of this financial analysis: "One only has to look at both national and regional economies during the last couple of years to recognize how uncertain projections can be and how quickly they change. Even though the exact amounts may change, this report provides insight into the magnitude and distribution of costs and associated funding shortfalls. It gives all those involved an additional critical tool for the task that lies ahead and allows planning and debate to be structured in a way that helps form sound environmental and public policy."
"We're not living in an ivory tower," says Ann Pesiri Swanson, the Commission's executive director. "Remember that our members are state legislators. We have no illusions about the difficult budget decisions the Bay states face in the near term."
The Next Step: Tributary Strategies
In March and April of this year, the Chesapeake Bay Program issued specific goals for the reduction of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the Bay--reductions that scientists believe will achieve the water quality commitments of Chesapeake 2000, based on the findings of the Bay Program's watershed and water quality computer models. From here, the seven Bay watershed jurisdictions have begun a yearlong process of developing tributary strategies. The primary opportunities for improving water quality lie in better sewage treatment, reducing agricultural runoff, and more aggressive stormwater management in urban and suburban areas. In each jurisdiction, the planning process will be accompanied by a search for the money to upgrade wastewater facilities, provide assistance to farmers, and retrofit stormwater systems.
"Integrating the budgeting process with the tributary strategies means being careful about planning the work we want to buy," says Chuck Fox, former Maryland Natural Resources secretary and now vice president of external affairs for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "With dollars hard to come by, we want to make sure we get our money's worth." Fortunately, he says, there are well established delivery systems for much of it. Sewer authorities may be able to reach many of their goals with only modest increases in customer fees. For farmers, the state Soil Conservation Districts and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service have solid track records, and the 2002 Farm Bill offers interesting new opportunities for strong environmental practices on working farms.
"Cleaning up stormwater is not well established yet," Fox says, "but it's not rocket science. Several local governments in the region, such as Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland, are developing strong stormwater utility systems."
In the end, the formal commitment to save the Chesapeake is there, with all six Bay watershed states signed on to it, and the detailed planning is well under way. But now the heavy lifting begins--in securing the money and putting it to work efficiently.
Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, sums up the situation with a mixture of pragmatism and passion: "Planning is easy; implementation is not. . . . But we have the power to choose a healthy Chesapeake for ourselves and for our children. If we want that Bay, with clear, healthy water, with grasses, crabs, rockfish, herons and ospreys, we can have it. We've been given a world class asset, and we must invest in it."
For more information . . .
For a copy of the Chesapeake Bay Commission's The Cost of a Clean Bay: Assessing Funding Needs Throughout the Watershed, call 410-263-3420, or go to the publications section of the Commission's website, www.chesbay.state.va.us, and download a PDF version. You can also get a PDF of Chesapeake Futures: Choices for the 21st Century by calling 410-798-1283 or going to the Maryland Sea Grant website, www.mdsg.umd.edu/CB/futures.html, where a PDF is available.