Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Not Your Daddy's Chesapeake Bay

I found this in the Bay Journal today, and this passage struck a chord with me, The case for a Chesapeake 'style' Bay

. . . which brings me to Jerry Schubel’s new book, The Future Chesapeake: Shaping the Future (Archway Press, 2021). Schubel began his long and illustrious career in marine science at Johns Hopkins University, at the old Chesapeake Bay Institute, then he headed major institutions on Long Island Sound, Boston Harbor and the Pacific coast.

The Future Chesapeake elaborates on Tom’s vision, steeped in science but also informed by the author’s devotion to the humanities. Schubel’s earlier book of essays and photography, The Living Chesapeake, is required reading for my university classes.

Like this double-length Chesapeake Born column, Schubel’s Future is no more than a starting point for a long-needed conversation: a complete rethinking of the current Bay restoration effort, which increasingly is banging its head against the wall, at risk of losing credibility and support.

The Bay of the future won’t resemble even its recent past. Schubel argues that despite decades of honest effort and billions of dollars, progress in restoring the Bay to something like the health it displayed before the 1970s has produced only modest progress, graded by environmental groups mostly in the range of D’s and C’s.

Nor is our “student” likely to ever score B’s, let alone A’s, given the accelerating headwinds of climate change and a watershed population on its way to triple the 8 million who lived here when the Bay was healthier, Schubel believes:

“Restoration may be a fine [goal] for old cars, for some endangered species and maybe whole ecosystems in a slowly changing world. But our world is changing more rapidly than any time in 200,000 years of modern human history. … We must try new ideas.”

“Restoration has not delivered … except to keep things better than if we’d done nothing … but forces already set loose, principally climate change … are going to make the current trajectory less successful even as it gets more expensive,” he writes.

Satisfactorily resolving the fate of the Chesapeake Bay, Schubel says, is an example of what has come to be known as a “wicked” problem. Wicked problems are so complex, often dealing with ever-shifting conditions from politics to climate, that they can be difficult to even define. Think less in terms of any solution at all, Schubel advises. Think in terms of “containment” of the Bay’s declines; think “minimizing regret.”

The book is not so gloomy as I’ve just made it sound. Gloomy would be pressing down the same old paths, continuing to miss deadline after deadline, falsely hoping every short-term positive trend turns out to be long term.

Nor is Schubel saying we should stop treating our sewage or requiring cleaner air, or that we should stop encouraging forests and wetlands. But we’d be better off, he writes, “investing in creating the Chesapeake Bay for the future rather than in trying to return it to some previous condition. … Perhaps, we should pause … reboot and affirm the qualities we want the Bay to have in the future that are in sync with the population we expect, and with the prevailing natural processes, including sea level rise and [warmer waters] that climate change will bring.”

If we do, he would “expect our aspirations and strategies … would be different from the strategies being pursued today.”

So, what might such a future Bay look like? What would it mean saying good-bye to what the “restoration” mindset lets us cling to?

I don't think anyone ever believed we could restore the Bay to "pristine" pre-colonial conditions. I do remember the goal being set to restore the Bay 70% toward that goal. But how would we measure it? No one alive remembers the Bay as it once was, and historical records are questionable.  For example, we know there were a lot of oysters, in all kinds of oyster bars that no longer exist, but we really don't know how many because they started mining them out once they discovered they could. We know the water had less nutrients, but we can't really quantify the nutrients flowing into the pristine Bay.

Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.

So I just bought the Kindle version on the book (commission earned).

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