Editor's note: The link between watershed management and marine EBM is no better exemplified than in the case of Chesapeake Bay, on the east coast of the US. Significant efforts to improve the health of the Chesapeake over several decades have focused largely on reducing upstream pollution. So far, however, those efforts have been unsuccessful in returning the bay to good health (see box at the end of the following essay).

This essay by Al Appleton examines the challenges of watershed management and how efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay could be improved. Appleton is an independent environmental consultant who has advised on water management worldwide, including in the US, Hungary, the Dominican Republic, Shanghai, and the Northern Andes.

By Al Appleton

Seen from afar, the quest to clean up Chesapeake Bay seems a bit tattered about the edges. After four decades of highly publicized, highly praised effort, and of meaningful accomplishment in many measures of water quality, the music emanating around Chesapeake sings not of triumph but of frustration. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for instance, has consistently given the Bay's recovery failing grades for lack of progress on habitat restoration, improvements in fisheries, and mitigation of the nutrient overloading problem.

Why is the Bay stuck – and in some instances even getting worse? After 40 years don't we, and shouldn't we, know everything we need to know about Chesapeake? Shouldn't we understand by this time exactly what we want to do? And if we say the problem is money, why don't we have it? If we do know what to do, then nothing should be easier to get than funding to do it, for when success is certain, the political system will make a stampede to the podium. Moreover, Chesapeake advocates take great and justifiable pride in the demonstrated willingness of Chesapeake area citizens to support the cleanup of the Bay.

A successful strategy has the following components: a clear goal, an equally clear statement of what must be done to achieve it, a straightforward statement of how you are going to do that, and an appealing picture of all the good things that will happen when you do so.

When the Chesapeake effort began, it created crackling excitement with a vision of America's greatest estuary restored…of an abundance of beautiful swimmers…of vast flats of wetland grasses swaying with the tides…of skies full of waterfowl…of an Eastern shore mellow with historic communities, revitalized by carefully scaled new development, and spurred by restored nature and natural beauty…of a watershed of 16 million people sharing a new environmental ethic of harmony with the Bay.

Some parts of that vision have come true. The public loves Chesapeake and has made it the backdrop for an enormous boom in gracious outdoor living, one reveling in scenic splendor and outdoor recreation. The achievements of Chesapeake have been sufficient to spur an enormous transformation in the way humans use the Chesapeake coastal zone, both on the water in terms of boating-oriented recreation, and off, in terms of crisp new housing developments and community centers that happily try, not always successfully, to honor the Bay's historic traditions.

But that transformation has not led to the unified watershed ethic originally dreamed of. Instead, if anything, it has not only created new stresses on resources like wetlands and stream corridors, but has also heightened tensions with upstream agricultural users. It should not be forgotten that the Pennsylvania farm landscape is also an equally beloved landscape, and an equally historic one – even if the usage of nitrogen fertilizers it currently depends on for its economic viability is far removed from the traditional agricultural and community ethics upon which its fame rests. But then again, the Chesapeake of second homes and leisure living is also far removed from the world of watermen that gives Chesapeake much of its mythic quality.

There is another way that Chesapeake has failed to achieve the original vision of a unified watershed ethic. Bay cleanup and watershed management is now an organizational and institutional lattice of initiatives and relationships, of regulations and market methods each responding to its own imperatives, each elbowing for space and priority.

Where all this has led in 2008 is an environmental agenda that has become largely focused on nutrient control. Where one once read in the Chesapeake literature about what were essentially ecosystem goals, now one increasingly reads about nutrients, about how loading reductions have not been matched by water quality improvements, about the next scheme to nudge nutrient loadings down further, about how many pounds of loading the target is. This is as if in a 64,000 square mile watershed, one could specify the poundage of one of the most dynamic chemical components of life with the precision of a master carpenter. In 2002, an unusually wet year, nutrient runoff into the Bay tripled, a result that essentially knocks into a cocked hat all the attempts to define nutrient loadings by an annual discharge or even average figure, and suggests that there needs to be a lot more ecologically dynamic understanding of these loadings and how to address them.

From a public policy manager's point of view, restoring Chesapeake now means reconciling five worlds: the new coastal zone exurban world (prosperous rural communities that serve as commuter towns to urban areas); the remnants of the old Bay user world; the long time urban centers world; the upstream agriculture world; and the regulatory, institutional civic world.

Is it this multiplicity of world views that makes finding a nutrient solution so hard? On paper, nothing could be easier than solving the nutrient problem: just say no. But the problem is that current nutrient uses are intrinsic to several of those worlds, while the tools of the Clean Water institutional world have so far shown themselves to be unable to manage such a task. Moreover, the equities between these various worlds are complicated – much more complicated than the mutual "good guy vs. villain" discussions of normal political discourse. And even though this is clearly recognized by the insiders, that recognition has yet to translate into a real attempt to sort out differences and create a new story about the Bay and its watershed, one that all five worlds can live with.

So the essential question for watershed management is, how would one build those bridges between these worlds? However important reducing nutrients is, it is essentially reductionist, in that it is addressing only one element of intertwined social, ecological and economic systems. In an era of sustainability, we know enough to wonder about such an approach. We also know enough by now to realize that nutrient removal as a concept has little ability in itself to excite or energize the public.

Return to an ecosystem approach

So three things suggest themselves to a Chesapeake outsider like myself. First, one needs to go back to an ecosystem approach to agenda setting, but an ecosystem approach that looks not only at the Bay but at the entire watershed. Making agriculture more sustainable has huge ecological values, not just from a pollution perspective but also from a landscape and biodiversity one, as well as preserving agricultural communities. Worldwide the experience is the same: long-term, the more the tools of industrial agriculture are used, the more agricultural community and landscapes are undermined.

Second, the promise of sustainability – that doing right for the environment will do right for the economy and vice versa – needs to be more aggressively explored and made front and center. Getting the landscape and watershed economics right offers an enormous fund of wealth. This can be organized to provide the hard cash that implementing an ecosystem strategy for the entire watershed would need. These funds could be collected in ways that address some of the underlying ambiguities of the Chesapeake – such as upstream investment which, despite its benefits for local waters as well, is generating an enormous amount of wealth for downstream users. This wealth should rightfully be shared.

Finally, it is idle to pretend that institutional structures do not matter. After 40 years and all the justified pride in the innovations to environmental management the Chesapeake effort has created, it would nevertheless seem to be time to ask whether the tools are still right for the problems. It is often a fatal flaw of American public management to design the process first and then seek to fit the problem into its framework. Instead, strategy should decide what needs to be done and what tools are needed to do it, shaping the institution to the task.

It is an old saying that if you will an end, you must will the means. Even if nutrient reduction is the right focus, could it be said about Chesapeake that for such an end we have willed the means? And if the goal is the restoration of Chesapeake ecosystems and watersheds in all their splendor, what would we conclude if we asked the same question?

For more information

Al Appleton, New York City, NY, US. E-mail: appletons5@aol.com

BOX: Background on Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay: The largest estuary in the US.

Chesapeake Bay watershed: Includes parts of six states – Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – as well as the District of Columbia.

Population of watershed: More than 16 million people.

Greatest challenge: Nutrient pollution, which fuels algae blooms and eutrophication in the Bay; the primary source is agricultural fertilizers and waste.

Other stressors: Chemical contaminants, habitat loss, erosion, and overharvesting of the Bay's fisheries resources, most notably oysters, blue crabs, shad, and menhaden.

Chesapeake Bay Program: Formed in the 1970s, a regional partnership of federal and state authorities and citizens' groups. Goals include to improve water quality, restore habitat, and manage fisheries.

Current condition: Despite decades of work to protect and restore the Bay, its health remains poor: runoff continues to be a problem, dead zones are expanding in some areas, and fisheries have not recovered.


Chesapeake Bay Program

Maps of the Chesapeake Bay watershed

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Chesapeake Program, US Environmental Protection Agency

Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay Commission

Chesapeake Research Consortium