A moral obligation to clean up the Chesapeake Bay

By Raymond Heil and Jodi Rose

It’s sobering, but not surprising, to read that the Environmental Protection Agency has found that the pollution reduction goals identified in the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Agreement will not be met. The EPA recommends that a new agreement and timeline be developed over the next year. This is the time for all of us to think about what can be done to help the states in the bay watershed finally achieve a clean Chesapeake Bay.

There are many reasons we are falling short of bay cleanup goals. Among them:

  • Our pre-1980 urban and suburban storm drain systems — our gray infrastructure — are designed to direct polluted stormwater runoff from buildings, roads, parking lots and lawns directly into the streams that empty into the Chesapeake.
  • Over fertilization of lawns and farm fields results in nitrogen and phosphorus polluting the Chesapeake and creating its dead zones.
  • A large portion of the land in the bay watershed is devoted to raising feed for chickens and cows. Streams draining these fertilized lands often lack natural forest buffers and in many areas more manure is produced than can be safely used.

All the major world religions believe that we humans, wherever we live, have a moral obligation to care for the earth. This is the foundation of our mission at Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. What does moral obligation to care for the earth mean for those of us who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed? It means that we all have a responsibility to understand how our lifestyles contribute to bay pollution and change our behaviors where needed — all out of respect for those around us for we all share this home together.

This responsibility falls on every person and organization, especially those who own or manage property in the bay watershed, from the owner of a rowhouse to the owners of large parcels of land, such as governments, corporations, universities, school systems, hospitals, retirement communities, shopping malls, farms and, yes, faith-based congregations. All these properties have hard surfaces, extensive lawns or agricultural fields that contribute unfiltered runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus into our waterways. The best way to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in runoff is to capture the rainwater where it falls, and to infiltrate it into the ground. The techniques to achieve this, called “green infrastructure,” include stream buffers, rain gardens, bio-remediation facilities, bio-swales, tree planting, and other techniques, which must be more widely used. Many congregations are already reducing their runoff, and are examples for the rest of us.

We are disappointed that the EPA has not forced the bay states to achieve the goals of their agreement. The bay cleanup program has achieved roughly half of its nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals using EPA, state and local government programs, such as the stormwater management fee adopted by some Maryland jurisdictions. As strong enforcement of these “top down” initiatives continues, additional gains can be made by organizing a “bottom up” stewardship movement involving all of us.

The results of the 2017 Stewardship Index, sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Program, found that “71 percent of residents want to do more to make their creeks, rivers and lakes healthier, and 86 percent believe that if people work together, water pollution can be fixed.”

A broad range of grassroots efforts, aimed at all categories of land use, should be organized to help push the bay cleanup effort to achieve its goals. Additional government programs to incentivize this work will be needed. When we reach our pollution reduction goals, engaging the entire growing population of the bay watershed to maintain pollution limits will continue into the future.

We need everyone in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed with responsibility for property of any size to understand and take seriously their duty, not only to themselves, but to their children and grandchildren, to clean up the bay. We urge you to find out what you can do to reduce fertilizer use and to filter stormwater runoff from your property, and to take action to make it happen. IPC is committed to being a part of this grassroots movement.

Raymond Heil (raymondheil@verizon.net) is a board member of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake; Jodi Rose (jodi@interfaithchesapeake.org) is IPC’s executive director.

This article was originally published as an Op-Ed by the Baltimore Sun.