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.

For Bay Clean Up, Goals Without Consequences Are Seldom Met

(posted by Tom Simpson)

I was one of a sixteen signatories to the consensus statement of scientists and policyleaders for the Chesapeake Bay that resulted from a meeting convened by former Senator Gerald Winegrad. Four other colleagues decided very late not to sign the statement. Perhaps they were the smart ones. However, it was pretty amazing, and perhaps a little sad, that a broad, diverse group of respected individuals could reach consensus so quickly that the current approach to Bay restoration was not working and suggest broad actions needed to “restore the restoration”.

It seems my signature on this document has managed to alienate many of my “friends,” particularly those in the agricultural community, so I want to explain why I did it and would do it again.

The Bay program has been a voluntary collaboration of Chesapeake Bay states and the federal government (and DC). As such, it remains the global model for inter-jurisdictional cooperation to attempt to improve water quality. However, the program has relied upon a series of agreements with worthy goals but absolutely no consequences if not met. I spent the last 10 years as Chair of the Bay Program’s Nutrient Subcommittee so I certainly share the blame.

Goals without consequences are almost never met by nations, states or individuals. Weight loss comes to mind. While being overweight has health consequences (not unlike ignoring the health of the Bay), their onset is gradual and long-term so it’s easy to ignore our well intentioned goals. But, what does it matter if we wait one more year? That same logic has been applied to the Bay Program and we are almost to the point of not having leaders who remember what a healthy Bay is.

I must credit the Bay program with having prevented the Bay from getting worse until recently, when past “progress” seems to be eroding in the face of growth. Clearly, the Bay would have been worse off had it not been for the program. But it is holding its own, at best, not recovering, after we committed in four different agreements.

The statement called for a new approach where states have mandatory nitrogen and phosphorus reduction targets and suffer consequences (loss of federal funding or control of delegated programs?) if the targets are not met by a specified date. Don’t throw out the baby with the wash water; keep the good science and monitoring and keep, but revamp the modeling. Do put the evaluation of goals, actions and progress in the hands of a more autonomous body with authority to invoke the consequences when the states or a pollution source sector don’t meet agreed upon performance levels on time.

While government friends were aggravated at my signing the document, Ag organization staff seemed the most outraged. That furor may have been sparked by what they viewed as inconsistency with the work of a new nonprofit, Water Stewardship, which I started rin Juily of 2008. We are working with foundations and major food system corporations to integrate water quality protection, and thus bay restoration, into the food system supply chain.

Consumers, stockholders and Wall Street analysts all want enhanced corporate environmental responsibility, and major food corporations know that this must start on the farm with production. We are working to with the Bay watershed and beyond to pilot an independent third party assessment, verification and continuous improvement program that will result in farms reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to levels needed for their part of Chesapeake Bay (and other coastal water) restoration.

The statement listed six broad actions that need to be pursued in addition to changing the bay program. Since everyone contributes to bay pollution, the six actions ask something of everyone but one reads “require mandatory controls and increased accountability to reduce agricultural pollutants” which some interpreted as calling for more government regulation. Ironically, I had fought to keep regulation for agriculture out of the statement because current attempts at government regulation have had very modest impacts, at best, and are unlikely to improve as government staff and resources continue to shrink. Even if fully implemented they won’t reduce nitrogen pollution nearly as much as needed. The public and the supply chain are calling for better and more accountable environmental performance from agriculture. Only two approaches have been offered: more regulation or marketplace expectations (mandates?).

We started Water Stewardship because we were convinced government lacked the capacity, resources and political will to enforce existing rules, much less take actions to achieve the even greater reductions needed from agriculture. The purely voluntary, walk in the door and get assistance and money, programs of the USDA and state conservation agencies have had some impacts but reach only a limited number of farmers, lack accountability and have not proven capable of delivering significant pollution reductions. Water Stewardship would work with the market to make water quality protection an expectation of the food system over time. We don’t want to impose this program on farmers today but to prepare them to meet an expected market requirement. We are convinced you perform better for the person buying your product than the government.

So, for the record, Tom Simpson and Water Stewardship do not support more government regulation of agriculture because we do not think it will be more effective, or less cumbersome, than current regulation. We do think consumers, stockholders and analysts have issued a “mandate” that there be less impact on water quality from our food system, starting with production.

Farmers try to be stewards of land and water resources but our production system and slim profit margins mean that the cost of water quality protection has not been a “specification” with value for their products. While it will be challenging to integrate this new “spec” into production, the market wants it and like many other changes, it will happen. We want Chesapeake farmers to be prepared for this change and help decide how it will occur so they can have an advantage in the marketplace. That won’t happen through more regulation and the continued lack of accountability of current incentive programs. It requires independent third party assessment and continuous improvement.

I am so convinced of this I am leaving the University of Marylandand dropping retirement plans to create an independent, accountable, continuous improvement program to help farmers reduce their impact on water quality, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay. If that constitutes “mandatory controls and increased accountability”, then I am indeed guilty but I invite the food system to join me in meeting this societal “mandate”. If the only answer is more ineffective government regulations or unaccountable incentives, think I’ll retire and go fishing while there is still something left to catch in the Bay.

One Response to For Bay Clean Up, Goals Without Consequences Are Seldom Met

  1. Since I got on the mailing list for the Chesapeake Bay Action Plan I have received several very well written articles accounting the frustrations with Bay cleanup. All of them with points well taken, but with the same, repeated result, as Tom experienced, a quick backlash from the opposing faction. And every point well taken about a specific issue yields the same result, as each issue had it’s faction that resists being pointed to as “the problem”.

    My point is it’s all been said before, over and over again. The problems have been clearly articulated many times. Tom says no consequences without enforcement. You only have to look at the reaction of the states to EPA’s TMDL program to know that the states are not going to be the enforcers. The new Republican House is determined to gut the EPA to the point that it will not have an enforcement role. So where is the muscle? If we can’t find a way to bring all the stake holders together to fight this out and reach some serious agreement about who is going to take responsibility for what, then what’s the alternative approach? I say let’s have a conference of players. Not another commission to draft yet another version of the multi-state agreement, but a working session of all the stake holders that will produce reports and statements of agreement that will be binding, not by coercion, but by the giving of one’s word; by force of commitment. After so many years of failure, I don’t see any other way.