Sobering lessons for Puget Sound clean-up

A Washington Post story indicates that after a major multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar effort, there's little or no progress in saving Chesapeake Bay.
A Washington Post story indicates that after a major multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar effort, there's little or no progress in saving Chesapeake Bay.

The story is sobering to those who hope for success in efforts to clean-up Puget Sound, the beautiful, once bountiful defining waters of our region. The Washington Post has an analysis of the historic $6-billion Chesapeake Bay clean-up effort, launched 25 years ago this month. The results: overall there is little if any improvement, sea life (oysters, crabs) continue to decline, and it appears that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been exaggerating, some might call it lying, about progress for years:

The agencies charged with the cleanup have never mustered enough legal muscle or political will to overcome opposition from the agricultural and fishing industries and other interests. Instead of strengthening their tactics, though, they tried to make the cleanup effort look less hopeless than it was.

The agency fibbing was largely due to not wanting to jeopardize funding by admitting failure, according to former clean-up officials who mislead the public and policy-makers with over-optimistic computer models about where the clean-up was headed.

Too, there was political hazard for many state and local governments. The Chesapeake's watershed sprawls from New York to Virginia and there are inherent difficulties with getting citizens to buy in to new clean-up taxes or changes in development or farming practices that would help the effort. The de-centralized nature of the clean-up has also made coordination difficult.

One of the still missing ingredients for success, even a quarter of century on, is public will:

Today, leaders around the Chesapeake are grappling with square-one questions, including: How badly does the public really want this? "There's a difference between the idea of 'I want to have a clean bay,' and what it might require me to change [about] the way I have to live my life," said Frank W. Dawson III, who oversees bay restoration for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "We collectively, as a society, may not be able to understand...the sacrifices necessary to get there."

This is certainly the elephant in the room for Puget Sound. The lifestyle changes required may come to late for people to consider seriously. Will people give up their cars, replace their septic systems, will builders slow development? And then there's the illusion of robust health: both Puget Sound and the Chesapeake remain pretty to look at. Neither calls to mind the Cuyahoga in Cleveland, Ohio, a river that famously caught fire multiple times due to pollutants in its waters:

For the bay, the consequences are clear: The vast marsh-rimmed estuary has just as many pollution-driven "dead zones" as it did in the 1980s and less of the life — crabs, oysters, watermen — that made it famous. "It'll always be beautiful," said Bernie Fowler, 84, a former waterman, county commissioner and state senator from Calvert County, who has argued for cleaning the bay since 1970. "But there's nothing out there living."

A picture-postcard Dead Sea might be just fine for most people.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.