|Roy A. Hoagland ’77
Out on the Chesapeake Bay, whether a clear spring day or a cloudy winter morning, the water looks great—healthy and alive.
But healthy it is not.
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution—several hundred million pounds of it—every year pours down the Susquehanna from New York and Pennsylvania, down the Potomac from West Virginia and Virginia, down the Patapsco and Choptank from Maryland, and down the thousands of creeks, streams and rivers that crisscross the 64,000 square-mile watershed to the bay itself.
With a population of 16 million and rising, it is we, the residents of this watershed, that launch this constant pollution assault on the Chesapeake ecosystem from our factories, homes, farms, shopping malls, cars, roads and power plants. Together, these sources of pollution contribute far more nitrogen and phosphorus than the bay can manage sustainably.
Despite millions of dollars invested annually to restore a resource declared a “national treasure” by presidents and Congress, the bay continues to die a slow death. In 2005, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay report gave the Chesapeake a D-plus (www.cbf.org). The report’s health indicators, ranging from pollution levels and acres of wetlands to the condition of key fisheries, reveal a bay functioning at one-quarter of its historic capability.
When I present this story to various audiences, the two most common questions they ask are: “So, can we Save the Bay?” and “What can I do to help?”
The first answer is, “Yes, we can Save the Bay.” We understand the problem: nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. We know its sources: sewage-treatment plants, urban and agricultural runoff, and air deposition. We have the solutions: technological upgrades of sewage plants and implementation of on-the-ground conservation practices on farms. We know what we need to do and where we need to do it.
What we lack is political will and sufficient funding. These needs lead to the second question: “What can I do to help?”
The primary answer is one that many do not want to hear: Get involved in your local, state and federal political process. Vote. Write your congressional representatives. Make your voice heard at public hearings. If we are to Save the Bay, to have a sustainable future for it and our planet, we need a revolution—a revolution of citizen engagement in natural-resource protection to achieve priority investments in restoration.
People react to this answer with skepticism. The post-Watergate, post-Enron, current-Abramoff culture of America has generated great cynicism about our political leaders and our political process. But time after time I have witnessed the incredible power of a letter, a phone call, a visit or a rally concerning elected officials’ opinions and decisions. Most of them want to do the right thing and further the public good. Most want to respond to their constituents’ needs and concerns, but they cannot unless we, as an engaged and informed constituency, participate in their decision-making process.
We will not achieve a restored Chesapeake Bay or a sustainable environment unless we demand them. We must demand fair, consistent enforcement of our pollution-control laws. We must demand greater investment in farm-conservation programs. We must demand greater environmental sensitivity in how and where we build our homes, offices, factories and shopping malls.
And we must make individual behavioral changes. We must drive less and reduce the fertilizer we put on our lawns. We must recycle and invest in “green energy.” We must buy more local produce. We must shorten our showers and capture rainwater for our gardens. … The list is a long one.
But all of these individual choices will not achieve sustainability if we don’t, as a society, through our choices at the ballot box and through ongoing dialogue with our elected representatives, ensure a political and legislative framework that places conservation and environmental sustainability at the forefront of social, economic and political agendas.
Article XI of the Virginia Constitution is distinctive in that it declares:
“To the end that the people have clean air, pure water, and the use and enjoyment for recreation of adequate public lands, waters, and other natural resources, it shall be the policy of the Commonwealth to conserve, develop, and utilize its natural resources, its public lands, and its historical sites and buildings. Further, it shall be the Commonwealth’s policy to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.”
The federal Constitution lacks such a provision. Born out of a revolution, the federal Constitution forged a new political structure and a new nation based on an informed and participatory electorate. We need a new revolution, one of citizen participation and engagement that calls for a sustainable environmental future for ourselves, our children and their children.
We can Save the Bay. We can save the planet. The important part is “we.”
Roy A. Hoagland, Esq. ’77 is vice president of environmental protection and restoration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, Md. Save the Bay is the rallying cry of his