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What’s Wrong with the Chesapeake Bay Program and How to Fix It

Because the Center runs a commercial landscape service called SoilKeepers focused on the creation of healthy soils and native plants for residential and agricultural customers, we are most aware of the power of soil organisms and organic matter to hold onto nutrients and sequester greenhouse gases. We have estimated the cost effectiveness of soil health to be high as compared to other urban Best Management Practices (known commonly as “BMP’s”, and including practices like rain gardens, detention ponds, etc.). Our customers ask us if there isn’t some type of environmental or conservation credit for helping improve soil when it has so many other benefits to other parties. When I recently asked federal and state government colleagues about getting approval for percent soil organic matter as a BMP, they said that this is a real interest area, but the approval process is slow.

Studies have been done for years showing the power of soil organic matter and beneficial fungi and bacteria to do all kinds of great things for us, including boosting endorphins and fighting cancer, in addition to the water quality and atmospheric benefits. In the consideration of new BMPs, when we have such significant and pressing problems that ultimately affect our own health, can’t we do better than the process is slow? Now let me say right here for those that think this is about to become a rant about conspiracy or evil government employees, you’re going to be disappointed. The problem is really, really way more boring than that.  The problem is that in this context, the government is overreaching. Ecological economists like Herman Daly note the need to have the public and private sectors doing the right things. The public sector needs to set the quality and scale of resources for conservation. EPA and the Bay states have done this with the Chesapeake Bay Pollution Diet (TMDL) program and I commend them for that as should any other human that thinks our Bay can only bear so much pollution without a negative impact on us and other organisms.

Where EPA and the Bay states are making a mistake is in getting into what Daly terms the allocative function. This is the domain for private markets. And when government extends its arm to pick winners and losers as a general proposition it’s at least inefficient and perhaps worse according to Daly. An example of picking winners is how government has funded some agricultural BMPs (stream fencing) with 100% government money with no cost sharing required. This is picking stream fencing as the BMP winner without any ongoing competitive process to do so.

Along with other folks in Central Virginia, we have for years been trying to get traction with Virginia and EPA on a pilot project of some type to step back from involvement in the allocative function to test private market or market-like structures to more cost effectively reduce pollution to the Bay. Right now, there is so much oversight borne of the desire to reduce likelihood of market mistakes, competition among entrepreneurs that would drive down BMP cost and approval timeframe, is quashed.

The Bay program like the Virginia state stormwater program is way too bureaucratic. This is no secret. Folks inside and outside of government have been for years trying to fix the stormwater system. Here’s the thing though – we can’t fix a problem by putting our foot on the gas when we’re going in the wrong direction. We have to turn around, and somehow find a way to move away from proscriptive systems to performance ones. If we do this, there will be significantly more players and products and services involved in the environmental protection arena than there are now. Yes, some will eventually be shown to be illegitimate, as in any marketplace, but the risk of allowing an occasional poorly performing product/service to enter a marketplace is the price we pay for bona fide competition.

What I am suggesting can’t be initiated by government staff. It can only come through a top down process, beginning with our local, state, and federal elected officials. This commentary is absolutely not a condemnation of the Bay program nor of any of the public or private folks that are dedicating their lives to try to help the Bay. Herman Daly talks of pre-analytic visions that drive human institutions and how those can become entrenched. We have simply the wrong pre-analytic vision. To be truly successful with the Bay program, meaning we restore higher trophic level ecosystem function, we have to foster significantly greater creativity and innovation. To do this we must go back to get the right vision, the right relationship between government and the private sector. Government must stop its desire to control pollution diet program implementation so private markets can cost effectively allocate the pollution reduction targets. Again, this is not a call for laissez-faire government policy, rather it is a call for optimizing the roles of the public and private sectors to cost effectively deliver environmental solutions we need now.

Michael Collins

Executive Director

Center for Natural Capital

Note: the comments expressed herein are solely those of Michael Collins and do not necessarily represent perspectives of other staff or Directors of the Center.

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