It’s Not Rocket Science … Restoring the Bay Is Harder

No less an authoritative body than the National Research Council weighed in this month on progress in restoring Chesapeake Bay. In a hefty report, the council, which is part of the National Academies of Science, delivered a sobering assessment of what would be required to achieve ambitious goals.
    This was not one of those feel-good reports like those old Environmental Protection Agency assessments patting themselves on the back. The Obama administration may have declared war on Bay pollution. But reaching those targets for reducing the flow of Bay-choking nitrogen and phosphorus will require sacrifice and “profound changes” in the Bay watershed, the report concluded.

Kenneth Reckhow, the lead author of a weighty new report analyzing the Bay cleanup, speaks to the challenges ahead.

    What’s more, there are new uncertainties. No longer do we enjoy the promise of nearly unlimited spending as in much of the past two decades. Then there’s the likelihood of impacts from climate change and the political dimension of denialists and anti-environmental legislation in Congress.
    Kenneth Reckhow, 63, a professor at Duke University and a widely known scholar on issues related to water management, chaired the nine-member panel of scientists who wrote the report. Reckhow also is affiliated with RTI International, a leading nonprofit research institution, in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
    Reckhow, a scientist who enjoys fleeing to his North Carolina beach house, spoke to Bay Weekly about the National Research Council report.

Bay Weekly    Your big report is out. How do you think it was received?

Kenneth Reckhow    I thought the EPA Bay Program received it quite well.
    There was a bit of concern, and some people were dismayed about the fact that there were criticisms. A couple of people said, You make these criticisms, but what about recommendations about how we proceed? Our response was, well, you didn’t ask us these questions. In a way, that sounds like a cop-out. But having been on three or four of these panels, I know you have to stick to the charge as best you can, and our task was quite specific.
    One other reaction that I’ve seen a little bit of is that the agriculture community appears to feel that they were singled out for criticism. Our response to that is that we believe that everyone along Chesapeake Bay is going to have to make sacrifices, very likely beyond what has typically occurred.

Bay Weekly    Your report observes that Chesapeake Bay is North America’s largest and most biologically diverse estuary. Does that make studying the Bay, as you’ve been doing, more challenging much as it leads to complexity in restoring the Bay?

Kenneth Reckhow     Probably other than the Everglades, it’s the most studied water body; the database is enormous. That is an advantage. Yet it is so large, and so complex, with a watershed in six states and D.C. So both from a decision-making perspective and from the perspective of assessments, it’s incredibly complex.

Bay Weekly    One of the things counter-intuitive here is your conclusion that there’s not enough data available to reach certain conclusions. How can there be insufficient data to evaluate how programs have been implemented when Chesapeake Bay is, as you note, one of the most studied bodies of water in the world?

Kenneth Reckhow     With regard to the water-quality data and the land-use data, I would argue that you have enough information to proceed. Where they’re short is in tracking and accounting for all the individual controls associated with tens of thousands of diffuse sources and non-regulated agriculture sources. That’s the area where it’s insufficient.
    Where there’s a data shortcoming is in identifying individual farms and their impacts.

Bay Weekly    You say in the report that the Obama administration “injected new energy into Bay restoration efforts.” Is there any evidence that this energy is paying off?

Kenneth Reckhow     I got an email yesterday evening indicating quite a bit of interest and maybe followup with Congress. The implication seemed to be concern about the EPA, and Chesapeake Bay among other things, in the Republican-dominated House. Our report may have been considered more seriously had there not been the attempt to trim the budget. It’s not particularly surprising that there’s a difference in the Republican perceptions.

Bay Weekly    Your report cautions against “overly optimistic expectations.” Why do you offer that advice?

Kenneth Reckhow     What we really lack is a characterization of the uncertainty and the forecast on how load reductions will, in fact, affect the water-quality standards. When I was interviewed for a web-based article last fall, I asked the question: Have we set water quality standards in the environmental euphoria of the 1970s that may not be compatible with the lifestyle and the expectations in 2011? The title of the article was “Blue Crabs or Green Lawns: We May Have to Decide.” That characterizes the notion that I think people believe you can have green lawns, you can have CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), you can have growth in communities … Our point that sacrifices will have to be made is another way of saying we sense that people don’t fully realize that.

Bay Weekly    You note that meeting the two-year milestones is not likely to lead to improved water quality. Is that one way of saying that restoration is going to take a long time?

Kenneth Reckhow     What we said is that it’s not likely you’ll be able to measure improvement in the Bay. There’s a natural variability in the Bay that will swamp that. But the milestones idea, we thought, was good because it leads to frequent assessments to the public on how efforts are going. It holds planners’ and politicians’ feet to the fire.
    You make frequent reports to the public so they know that actions are being taken. There can be a substantial lag between when best management practices are implemented and when there are observable changes. It can take a long time. That point has been made, but not as clearly as we feel it should be made to the public by the Bay Program to get the people to be patient. We felt it was important that the Bay Program emphasize that it’s going to take a long time to see improvements.

Bay Weekly    There is an ongoing debate along the Bay about use of resources, as you note, referring to the assertions by [U.S. Naval Academy professor] Howard Ernst and others that there’s been a lot of money wasted on studies when the problems are well understood. How do you make the case for modeling centers and more adaptive management in this budget climate?

Kenneth Reckhow     I think we’ve dug ourselves into a hole by too often giving the impression that we know more than we actually do.
    It has been said that this is not rocket science. I was a physics undergrad major, and rocket science is pretty straightforward, and the uncertainties are pretty small. But assessing in the social arena how people and groups are going to respond to social policies is incredibly difficult, as with ecological predictions, whereas rocket science is not.

Bay Weekly    Are you saying in the report that budget cuts we’re seeing across the board right now will make things even more difficult?

Kenneth Reckhow     It’s natural to think that as resources are reduced achieving goals by 2025 is going to be more difficult.

Bay Weekly    Your report notes challenges coming from climate change. How do people concerned about Bay restoration make the case that our changing climate is a threat to the Chesapeake when there’s a growing segment of politicians who deny the role of humans in climate change?

Kenneth Reckhow     That is something we’re seeing in Congress. Who knows whether they believe it or not, but you certainly see statements to that effect.
    My wife is a county commissioner and I’ve asked her, Are you concerned about it from a local government perspective? Predictably, local governments, like state governments, are facing real budget challenges and are responding to things that are immediate. In my wife’s case, it’s education, funding local services and criminal justice. It’s really hard; even people who truly believe we are affecting climate, it’s hard for them to put resources toward action. It’s human nature to hold off responding until a crisis occurs.

Bay Weekly    You say that success hangs on political will as much as the involvement of individual citizens. What did you mean by that?

Kenneth Reckhow     I actually think that on the Chesapeake, this could turn into a valuable public debate about what we want to achieve with water quality given the realities of what it might require in social and economic sacrifice.
    Are we willing to sacrifice to achieve compliance with these water quality criteria?
    If not, where’s the balance in actions we think will achieve water quality, and what are we wiling to pay for in a social and economic sense?
    A serious public discussion informed by the social and natural sciences would be a good idea.
    That sort of debate is something we’re going to have to have here in Raleigh, N.C., and at Lake Okeechobee in Florida and along hundreds of water bodies in this country. That’s the sort of political-public will we’re talking about.
    You have got to be patient and be ready to sacrifice, but only after public discussions about what you want and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve.

Read the full report at