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.

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Author Archives: Howard Ernst

Builders: Do No Harm

Before Henry David Thoreau borrowed an axe and withdrew to the woods at Walden Pond, he spent a great deal of time daydreaming of owning a proper farm. He writes that “at a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.” Toward this end, he had “surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live. In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession.” He imaged how he would transform the land “into orchard, wood-lot, and pasture” and decided “what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door.”

It seems that no one, not even the sage of Walden Pond, can escape from the pull of home ownership. In many ways it is the American Dream—white picket fence, grassy lawn, dog rolling in autumn leaves, every home a castle and every homeowner the king or queen of their castle. Entire television programs—no entire television networks—are based on the premise of buying, building or rebuilding the perfecting home (e.g., “House Hunters,” “Property Virgins,” “Curb Appeal,” and my favorite, “Flipping Out”—who can resist Zoila?).

Being against home building is like being against procreation: It is pointless. But for as long as I can remember, being a member of the Chesapeake Bay environmental community has been synonymous with being against development (against development on Kent Island, against development near the Blackwater Refuge, against development in the critical area, against development in rural areas, against development of the Montgomery County, Md., Inter-County Connector…).

I like a good yurt as much as the next guy, but the fact of the matter is most people, environmentalists included, live in houses. So it cannot be that the environmental community is against homes. A cynic might suggest that they are against other people’s homes, but that too does not ring true. The fact is that the environmental community is not against homes, what they are against is the environmental harms created by antiquated building techniques. Specifically they are against the environmental harms created by adding outdated buildings in areas with rivers that are already severely degraded by years of thoughtless building practices.

The harmful runoff from homes, which poison our rivers and threaten the Bay, is not an unavoidable consequence of home building. Living roofs, storm water catchment areas, pervious surfaces and countless other techniques can dramatically reduce the environmental impact of construction. And using these practices in the built environment to replace or rebuild outdated urban structures can actually produce environmental benefits. That is right, development, if done intelligently can lead to environmental gains. Moreover, this does not require limiting all future development to industrial brownfields. What it mean is implementing environmentally sound building designs into new projects, while at the same time setting side enough resources to correct the misdeeds of the past.

So build new homes, build as many as you want, make them as big and fancy as you want, but make sure they lead to no net pollution gain in our already impaired waterways. And if you cannot make them big, fancy, plentiful and environmentally benign, than just make sure that they are environmentally benign.

The Anacostia River Plunge

(Posted by Howard Ernst.)

For the last decade I have written, talked, and sometimes even done things to promote clean water in the Chesapeake Bay region and beyond. But one thing I have always refused to do was to participate in that unique Chesapeake Bay tradition known as “the wade-in.”

The practice was made popular by my good friend and trusted ally, former Maryland State Sen. Bernie Fowler, who has conducted his wade-in for more than two decades. As regular as the fish that return to the Bay each spring, on the second Sunday in June, Sen. Fowler and his followers return to the banks of the Patuxent to see how far they can walk in the water before their shoes become obscured by the thick flow of agricultural pollution, mud, and sewage that plague that troubled river. Politicians make speeches, friends are acknowledged for their hard work, and Bernie loses sight of his feet at about 30 inches (never much different than the year before).Continue Reading

Pollution and the Chesapeake Bay

Howard Ernst, political science professor, scholar and author of Chesapeake Bay Blues: Science, Politics, and the Struggle to Save the Bay, recently sat down with local photographer David Joyner to discuss chicken farms as major polluters, why Pennsylvania is such a political nightmare and what is really killing the Chesapeake Bay.

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“No Farms No Food”: No Regs?

(Posted by Howard Ernst.)

The truck ahead of me had a constellation of conservative bumper stickers. The kind of stuff you would never see on a Prius. Most of them were familiar conservative messaging, the obligatory National Rifle Association sticker in the rear window, a slogan against taxation (even with representation), but there was one sticker in particular that glared at me from the vehicle’s rear end. It simply stated, “No Farms, No Food.” Continue Reading

Regulating Agriculture: Taking the Profit Out of Pollution

(Posted by Howard Ernst.)

Agricultural practices in the Bay region today remain grossly under-regulated, giving a tremendous economic advantage to those who pollute our waterways with environmentally irresponsible farming practices. Industrial agricultural production is the single biggest source of pollution to the Bay because the current rules (or lack of them) make this form of food production the most profitable. Sensible agricultural regulations level the playing field, take the profit out of pollution, and are absolutely essential to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
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