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.

J. Chuck Fox–Thank You

Posted by Howard Ernst

On December 3, 2008 an unprecedented event took place in Annapolis, Maryland. A group of twenty distinguished Chesapeake Bay scientists and policy experts crowded into a small room at the Maryland Inn to discuss the fate of the Bay restoration effort. The meeting itself was not particularly significant, most of the people in the room knew each other and all the attendees had participated in similar discussions in the past, but what the participants had to say was groundbreaking. Within a short period of time, the diverse group of environmental experts agreed to a unanimous statement regarding the Bay restoration effort. Their statement declared that the voluntary/collaborative structures under the formal Bay Program had not succeeding and, as a consequence, the Bay’s health was declining, not improving:

We have concluded that after 25 years of effort, the formal Bay Program and the restoration efforts under the voluntary, collaborative approach currently in place have not worked. We recognize that many people, organizations, and government entities have worked diligently to restore the Bay, which would be worse without their actions. But in the face of significant population growth and expanding development, these efforts have been insufficient and are failing.  Water quality is declining or not improving in much of the Bay and its rivers, and living resources continue to decline. We must transition from the voluntary collaborative approach in place for 25 years to a more comprehensive regulatory program that would establish mandatory, enforceable measures for meeting the nutrient, sediment, and toxic chemical reductions needed to remove all Bay waters from the Clean Water Act impaired waters list. These measures should be fully implemented and enforced so our children can safely swim, fish, and enjoy the Bay as their grandparents once did. The required reductions of nutrients, sediment, and toxic chemicals must be based on quantitative, scientific standards, have enforceable limits, precise monitoring, and substantive sanctions for noncompliance. We believe that the core of this new approach to Bay restoration should be the principles that clean water is a right of all citizens and that polluters should pay.

The December 3rd meeting was followed by a press event five days later in which members of the group handed their declaration of action to then Director of the EPA’s Bay Program office, Jeffrey Lape. The formal intervention concluded with Director Lape politely acknowledging that the health of the Bay “is not where it needs to be.” What Director Lape failed to realize is that the group was not finding fault with the state of the Bay, they understood the condition of the Bay. The group was condemning the state of the Bay restoration effort and the unfounded light green assumptions upon which the restoration had been built. What made the group unique is that they were not calling for more of the same (e.g., more funding, more collaboration, more consensus); what they demanded was the replacement of the non-regulatory Bay Program with a regulatory environmental management authority. Their message was picked up by major news organizations and repeated throughout the region. Pollution was not killing the Bay; the ineffective voluntary partnership that allowed pollution to go unchecked was killing the Bay. This message would become the core principle of the 25 Step Bay Action Plan.

Three months later the new Obama Administration seemed to heed the call for action by appointing J.Charles (Chuck) Fox to a new position at the EPA, Senior Advisor on the Chesapeake Bay. Chuck Fox has 25 years of combined experience as an environmental advocate, a regulator at EPA, and head of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. More importantly, he has a well-earned reputation in the environmental community as a hard-nose champion of the Chesapeake Bay. The feeling among the environmental community was that no one was better versed in the problems of the Bay than Fox, and no one was likely to push harder within the new administration for the tools that are necessary to turn around the failing restoration program. But with the administration concerned with an economic downturn, foreign military conflicts, and global climate change, it was unclear if Fox would have the political sway to achieve the regulatory changes that could reinvigorate the Bay restoration effort.

Under the leadership of Fox, also known as the “Chesapeake Bay Czar,” the Bay restoration has begun the slow transition from a hapless voluntary program into a meaningful regulator regime that makes full use of the existing law, pushing it to a new level. In his short tenure at the helm of the Bay restoration effort, the EPA completed its TMDL for the Bay, every state in the watershed advanced aggressive programs for the Bay, and the entire region has taken a large step forward toward achieving the promises of the Clean Water Act. Is it everything the Bay needs?  No.  Will it be sufficient to delist the Bay from the impaired waters list?  Not likely.  Is it a start of something important? You bet it is. Last week the environmental community heard that Chuck will be moving on, directing his energy toward ocean policy. Goodness knows the oceans need advocacy as well. What J. Chuck Fox leaves behind, his legacy to our region, is a new accountability regime that should provide real opportunities for Bay improvement in the future.

Thank you Chuck and good luck with your future endeavors. Send reinforcements—fast.

Howard Ernst is a political science professor and author of two books about Chesapeake Bay restoration. You can learn more about Dr. Ernst at his website ( The views expressed in this entry are the authors alone and not the official position of his employer or any group. Portions of this post are reprinted from Ernst’s latest book, Fight for the Bay.

2 Responses to J. Chuck Fox–Thank You

  1. Good post – I am happy to live in a time when someone in power has been willing to step up and do it – knowing that the cost to their career could be great.

    I think it’s a bit disingenuous to say that voluntary restoration hasn’t worked. In several subwatersheds, it has worked. In many watersheds, it has prevented the collapse of the estuary, as impacts have increased over the last 20 years.

    Most folks who are serious about actually restoring the bay acknowledge that moving beyond “life support” will require a new regulatory framework. TMDL may or may not be it (as VA, NY, and in some comments, PA, have all vowed to fight its enforcement). But it’s a real effort, which should be applauded.

    • Please….provide one example where voluntary environmental goals restored a watershed, subwatershed, or anything else.

      Make it a real example, we will check.