In 1990, the Chesapeake Bay was in the midst of a visible pollution crisis. Fish were dying from toxins in the Potomac River. Baltimore’s steel mill was spewing sulphur oxides into the air. Wastewater plants weren’t properly equipped to remove nitrogen and phosphorus. The Bay was in deep trouble.
At the time one of us had just been appointed to be Maryland’s secretary of the Environment and the other was beginning his second decade as the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The environmental problems then were obvious. Baltimore residents living near the mill had to wipe metallic grit known as “kish” from their cars and houses. An Environmental Protection Agency report from 1990 described Baltimore Harbor as a “hot spot” for toxic contaminants.
In response, leaders at the federal and regional level came together to strengthen a nascent state/federal Bay Agreement. Today, this partnership between the six states, Washington, D.C., and the federal government has continued to improve. Each jurisdiction is committed to meeting pollution reduction goals that are enforced by the federal EPA. At the agreement’s heart is a commitment to follow sound science.
The agreement has started to work. Bay grasses are more abundant, rockfish have rebounded, blue crabs are increasing, and more forest buffers line tributary streams, filtering runoff. But the Bay is far from saved.
And the region’s environment now faces a more existential threat—climate change. From Annapolis to Norfolk, tidal flooding routinely spills into city streets. The intensity and frequency of rainstorms continue to increase. Last year was Baltimore’s wettest on record—the city received more than 70 inches of rain. In Pennsylvania, the runoff caused by the excessive rain polluted local streams and rivers and the Bay downstream. In July, the Susquehanna River’s muddy plume, which was captured on satellite images, extended from Havre de Grace to the Potomac River, halfway down the mainstem of the Bay.
If climate change is not addressed, its impacts will intensify. Warming waters and low salinity levels will continue to negatively affect the Bay. Oysters will die. Water clarity will decline. Dangerous algal blooms could return—stripping water of the dissolved oxygen needed to sustain all Bay life.
We need national and global action.
This week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh will join other elected officials, leading scientists, corporate executives, and environmental nonprofit leaders from around the world in Baltimore for the Climate Leadership Conference.
They’ll be gathering at a time of federal intransigence toward global warming. Earlier this month, President Trump released his latest federal budget proposal. His plan in the face of climate change is to cut EPA’s budget by 31 percent—significantly reducing funding for regional programs to restore impaired bodies of water such as the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay. While outright denial seems to be on the wane, leaders in Congress have yet to agree on meaningful action and engage in honest debate on global warming solutions.
There’s little doubt the Baltimore conference will elicit creative and new ideas to address climate change. But perhaps as we move forward with plans to address the problem, we should look at regional examples such as the Chesapeake Bay Agreement.
The Bay is a global model of environmental stewardship. It’s an example of what can be achieved when leaders agree action must be taken. If we’re going to stop air pollution from coal-powered plants in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky from settling in the Chesapeake Bay and impacting the health of our most vulnerable citizens, we must act. We must convince the leaders and residents of those states that they not only need to be part of the solution, but their citizens also have a future in the solution.
And it’s not just the U.S. that must act. Countries such as China, India, Saudi Arabia and Russia must see that environmental stewardship will benefit their citizens and businesses.
We’ve created a collective concern for the Chesapeake Bay in this region. That concern has led to collective action. Now we need to go the next step, and also convince others to care about saving their bays, their streams, and their forests by addressing climate change now. We can’t save the Bay on our own, we’ll need the world to help.
— Bob Perciasepe and William C. Baker
Bob Perciasepe is president of the nonprofit Center for Climate Solutions, deputy Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama from 2009 to 2014, and Maryland Secretary of the Environment from 1990 to 1993. William C. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.