Education, Cooperation and Trade-Offs Are Key to Chesapeake Bay's Health, Says U.Va. Environmental Scientist

April 12, 2011 — Though most people consider the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure, this consensus and much hard effort haven't been enough to improve the health of the ailing bay over the last quarter-century.

An entirely new approach to managing its ecosystem will be needed to bring about real improvement as the region's population continues to grow, a leading bay scientist argues in the current issue of The Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

It will involve many parties working together, writes David E. Smith, associate chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences who has long studied coastal systems and the relationship of science and public policy.

One place to start is with an even stronger effort to educate all residents of the Chesapeake's far-flung, multi-state watershed about how their personal choices affect the bay's health, Smith said.

Six major river systems and numerous smaller ones drain into the bay from significant portions of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, the District of Columbia and parts of Delaware, but many people inside this watershed don't even realize they live within it. Smith observes that the farther one moves from the main stem of the bay, the less likely that residents will know they are living in one of the bay's tributary watersheds.

The multi-state composition of this large drainage area creates challenges for environmental administrators because of the many local and state political boundaries that each major river tributary passes through.

"It is central to the local economies that border the bay's main stem by providing water-based employment opportunities such as commercial shipping, seafood harvesting and recreational activities, such as privately owned marinas and recreational boat sales and service that abound on the bay," Smith writes. "The ports of Baltimore and Hampton Roads generate significant revenues for Maryland and Virginia, respectively. Military use of this resource is critical to our nation's national security."

Additionally, the water in the bay receives the runoff from many of the industrial and municipal processes that occur throughout the bay's large watershed.

"And finally, while sometimes difficult to quantify, the ecosystem services that the bay provides, such as absorbing excess nutrients through the bordering wetlands, providing refuge and nursery habitat for the many fish and shellfish species that we eat, and providing habitat for economically and ecologically important bird species and others, are just as important. Unfortunately, these competing uses are often in conflict, resulting in significantly more difficulty in trying to manage this resource," he writes.

Smith and scholars from several disciplines have studied how heavily populated ecosystems can remain economically and environmentally sustainable. As a teaching and learning tool, they developed the U.Va. Bay Game, an agent-based dynamic simulation of the complex socio-ecological system that is the Chesapeake Bay. The novelty of this approach is that it couples the social and natural sciences into a robust simulation that illustrates emergent behavior that results from the complex system.

Participants take on the roles of crop farmers, livestock raisers, watermen, land developers or policymakers and make decisions about their livelihoods based on their own set of values. For example, farmers can plant conventional high-yield crops with heavy fertilization or try low-impact farming methods and perhaps give up some short-term gain.

After each decision, the simulation calculates individual and group economic gains as well as the bay's health, providing the users with a clear picture of how their actions affect the wider society and the environment on which they depend.

The program has demonstrated several things about the complex socio-ecological system of the Chesapeake Bay and its management. These include:

•    Initially, not all resident "players" in the bay's watershed fully understand the extent of the area or, more importantly, the role of nutrients such as strong fertilizers in determining the bay's health. This occurs in spite of all the focused publicity on the bay in the region.
•    Understanding of the bay's health and the region's economic needs is valuable and useful to most people, regardless of their political views.
•    Communication and cooperation among the "players" is critical. For example, communication between the policymakers and the groups that they regulate is important, but so is communication between watermen and farmers, or between farmers in the Susquehanna watershed and the James River watershed.
•    Information and data about the bay's health are important for everyone to see to make decisions.
•    Unanticipated consequences are possible and, in fact, likely. Consequently, adaptive management is necessary to achieve economic and ecological sustainability.

But the major factor affecting the future of the bay is population growth in its watershed, Smith writes. Some counties in the watershed have experienced population growth rates exceeding 40 percent in the last decade. The population of the bay's watershed, currently 17.4 million, is projected to grow to 20.3 million in the next two decades. 

As a result of such findings, Smith advocates a new approach for addressing the sustainability of a complex socio-ecological system such as the Chesapeake Bay. 

If the region's residents care about the bay, they must recognize that "there are limits," he said. "There is a time when our social systems, including our socio-ecological systems, will need to grow better. The way things were done in the past is no longer relevant and we need to think smarter."

The first step in this process is to realize just how complex and interrelated the social and environmental system of the bay is, Smith writes. "Open minds and communication trump partisan bickering," he said.

— By Robert Brickhouse

About The Virginia News Letter

Launched in 1924, The Virginia News Letter is a publication devoted to Virginia public policy issues. Its authors are drawn from the University of Virginia, other public and private higher education institutions in Virginia and non-academic experts in the state. Each issue features an article by a different author.

The Virginia News Letter is issued six to eight times per year. John L. Knapp, senior economist in the Center for Economic and Policy Studies, is the current editor, and Robert Brickhouse is a consulting editor.

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