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Step Right Up (Everyone’s a winner)

After 400 years of degrading the Chesapeake Bay, we now learn that, in fact, we will all be richer if we restore instead of degrade it. This is shocking in its implications. Instead of taking more oysters from the Bay than nature is able to replace, we might be better off to limit our annual harvests and maintain larger stocks? Instead of using the Bay as a place to deposit sewage and storm water, we might be better off doing something else with them? Instead of importing large infusions of nitrogen and phosphorous to grow our food, we will be better off doing agriculture some other way? And the economy grows from all of this?

It would be great if we could all become richer by stopping the degradation of the Bay. But, if watermen have to reduce harvests so that stocks can recover, how are they going to be better off in the short run? If we have to pay more to deal with our sewage and stormwater, won’t that be less money in our pockets for baby’s shoes? If we ask farmers to stop generating the nutrient pollution that their cropping and animal production systems generate, how are they supposed to make money off of their land?

Don’t get me wrong. I entirely believe that restoring the function of an ecosystem as large and important as the Chesapeake Bay will make our society better off. It might even be good practice for the atmospheric carbon problem. I just think it is short-sighted to ignore the fact that some of us are going to be paying costs that we did not previously pay. Up to the present, we have accepted ever smaller oyster stocks as the cost of over-harvesting oysters. We accepted the costs of our nutrient and sediment pollution as degraded water quality. That is where we are now.

If we want to remove the problems of degraded fisheries and poor water quality, we have to imagine that it is going to cost somebody something. But, given the need to sell the idea of restoring the Bay to the wider citizenry, who wants to talk about new and potentially onerous costs? The Bay restoration effort is driven at the top by political leaders and political leaders in modern day America are loath to say to their constituents, “this is going to cost you something.”

Consider these two messages: 1) Cleaning up the Bay is going to cost a lot of money and you are going to have to provide some of it, versus, 2) Spending money to clean the Chesapeake Bay will boost our regional economy. It does not require a focus group to know which of those will be the easier message to sell. In the first instance. But, having sold the citizenry on the double benefit of the restoration effort (i.e., a stronger economy and a healthier Bay), now consider what we must say to the waterman who is being told he can’t fish stocks down to zero, or the farmer who is told, we can’t let you send that much nitrogen into our shared surface water and shallow ground water. Do we say, “don’t worry about being out of pocket for the restoration because it will generate benefits elsewhere in the economy”?

It seems to me that we would be better off telling people the truth upfront, then working to assure them that the costs are being allocated equitably and that we are working to do the restoration at the least possible cost. Saying that would make the challenge of allocating the costs equitably and achieving least cost restoration more obvious. It would focus our attention where the goal of restoring the Bay needs it to be focused. I suppose the question is how well speaking that sort of truth would fit with the aspirations of our political leaders?

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