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.

Want to Know Why We Can’t Clean Up the Bay? Follow The Money

Posted by Fred Tutman

There is a lot of talk nowadays as the Watershed Implementation Plans are being finalized about the sheer cost of restoring the Bay and our waterways. Plainly lots of folks want money to restore our waterways but almost nobody knows where the dough will come from. Strangely there is far less talk about how to prevent this awful gap in resources from becoming perpetual. How did we get in this mess and how will we stop the endless and expensive chain of pollution and restoration? You can call it “sustainability” but I think it really all boils down to advocacy.

Restoration and advocacy are two different approaches to dealing with the persistent problems of dirty water. But these two polarities actually have very different implications as far as funding potential, tactics and effectiveness. Actually, there is a whole generation of Bay advocates who think education and advocacy are the same thing. Nothing could be further from reality.

The sorry truth is that if we want to determine who is doing what to protect our waterways, you need only look at where their money comes from and where it goes. Big money is almost never on the side of “busting” polluters, suing over bad permits and challenging poor environmental policy. Instead, the ordinary funding base for nonprofit watershed protection follows things like positive messaging, restoration and “collaboration” and research. There are far more people working in the environmental realm to find ways to collaborate with polluters than those working to get them to cease and desist or obey the laws. And yet people typically and wrongly assume that we are all collectively engaged in the same quest.

Like nearly all Waterkeepers , I personally do not see any percentage at all in collaborating with those who run manure farms on the Bay, discharge their toxic waste water into our tributaries, or flood sediment into receiving waters near their profitable construction sites. I am not so interested in a “balancing” act where the environment gets the liabilities and some vested interest gets nearly all of the assets. Nor do I think we should waste time educating people who are willful polluters. Bitter experience has shown that these folks can make far more money wrecking the environment than they can protecting it.

And guess what? Those same folks plundering the planet are planning to use your money to clean it up. They stand in line for subsidies, tax abatement, cost shares, trading programs and other stuff almost every time at bat. It’s always about money for the ranks who love restoration, it is rarely about resource conservation. Yet their money isn’t even a question. It’s your money that is always being proposed to clean up this mess. Our own Maryland Department of the Environment hasn’t updated its fines for violations in decades even while the gap between what’s in the treasury and what’s needed to fix the problems just widens.

Pollution is not natural at all—it is usually the debris left behind after unsustainable (but profitable) commercial activity. If anybody thinks watershed advocacy ought to be primarily about restoration or picking up “trash” then frankly, that is darned insulting. I am in the “business” of advocating for the protection of resources before they are ruined and even then, only after the pollution profiteering has been abated. It would be pointless to do things any other way. I am a firm believer that we should not waste any time or money cleaning up something unless we are reasonably certain that it is for the last time. If we expand our valuable and scarce resources restoring the Bay (basically using public money to remediate private profit) the most we can expect is whopping bill for restoration at the end.

And so here we are. The estimates for cleaning up our Bay and our rivers total in the billions of dollars and yet we cannot even afford the lesser millions needed to adequately fund our enforcement agency, let alone pay the price tag to “restore” the waterways. So where do you think we should put our energy? Clearing up something that will always need to more cleaning, or closing the gap between making new messes and cleaning up old ones?

The truth that few have noticed is that polluted waters have become an industry that contributes to the economy. This status quo is tacitly supported by many environmentalists and polluters alike. Two sides of the same cockamamie equation. Both love money and both sets of parties just as eager to give a line item to pollution instead of ending the constant replay of policies that have institutionalized pollution for this and future generations.

You cannot make this stuff up.

3 Responses to Want to Know Why We Can’t Clean Up the Bay? Follow The Money

  1. I would be interested in views of others on this question: Is there a “conflict of interest” in the environmental community by virtue of the sources of their money? I’m not concerned so much with the obvious conflicts, i.e. developers, but the other, apparently less obvious, government, quasi-governmental sources.

  2. That is the question that no one (including me) wants to discuss at any depth. If for no other reason than when TMDL is implemented, the agency-based funds for “voluntary” restoration work will need to be slightly modified to handle the tax revenue required to pay for the projects.

    This is especially true at the county government level.