Revisiting the Chesapeake Bay

In 2000, an update of the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Agreement advised that new people moving into the Bay watershed “could potentially eclipse” all past environmental gains.

The 2003 “Chesapeake Futures” report questioned “whether growing population, unchecked resource consumption and a casual disregard for the natural environment will overwhelm our attempts to restore the Bay.”

In 2007, a federal scientist explained to The Baltimore Sun why pollution was actually increasing again in several tidal rivers:  “The pressures on the Bay watershed have stepped up significantly in the last decade… population growth has increased.”

For 36 years, the message has been clear: population growth and development are destroying the Bay environment, and our best efforts and latest technologies are not reversing the damage.  In fact, they can barely keep up with it.

But, when the time for action comes, it seems questioning the expansion of the economy and the population are off the table – either because they are considered sacred cows, or they are just too hard to deal with.  It is assumed we can cure the symptoms while vigorously expanding their root causes.

If one wonders how long such denial might continue, consider Maryland’s Patuxent River, which drains several affluent counties surrounding Washington and Baltimore before flowing through southern Maryland into the Bay at Solomons Island. In the 1970s, a decade before the larger Chesapeake restoration began, alarming declines in water quality and marine life focused state and federal attention on resuscitating the Patuxent.

The strategies there became the prototype for cleaning up the Chesapeake. Perhaps none of the Bay’s

40-odd tributaries has had more scientific expertise and money poured into reversing environmental decline. But today the Patuxent remains in crisis, with no turnaround in sight.  Pollution has actually risen there in the last few years.

Population growth per se is nowhere to be found on the long list of pollution problems there.  Yet population in its watershed has increased around 16 times since the 1960s, when the Patuxent was last healthy, and that growth is continuing today.

Only a few decades ago our politicians and environmental organizations forthrightly questioned whether continued growth was good.   “One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of [the 20th] century will be the growth of the

population,” President Richard M. Nixon said in a speech to the nation on July 18, 1969.

Over 40 years ago, President Nixon’s bipartisan Commission on Population and the American Future (known as the “Rockefeller Commission” after its chairman, John D. Rockefeller, III) reported:

We have looked for, and have not found, any convincing argument for continued population growth. The health of our country does not depend on it, nor does the vitality of business, nor the welfare of the average person.

The U.S. could cope with continued growth, the Commission said, “but in so doing we shall pay a cost reckoned not in dollars but in our way of life. We should concern ourselves with improving the quality of life for all Americans rather than merely adding more Americans.”

The links between population growth and environmental decline continued to be made, despite widespread dismissal of the Rockefeller Commission report.  Released in 1982, the “Global 2000” report commissioned by President Jimmy Carter recommended that the U.S. consider a policy of population stabilization. In 1988, the nation’s major environmental groups drafted “Blueprint for the Environment,” warning President-elect George H. W. Bush that “population pressures threaten the environment all across our nation.”  In 1996, President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development declared the need “to move toward stabilization of the U.S. population.”

If anyone had listened, the Chesapeake would be a much healthier place.  There were around 206 million Americans when the Rockefeller Commission published its report in 1972.  Had the nation adopted a stable population policy then, the U.S. population might have peaked at 230 million by 2030, according to estimates based on U.S. Census Bureau data. Instead, according to the Census Bureau, we have more than

315 million Americans already and are projected to reach 400 million by shortly after mid-century.

Had the 1972 policy recommendation been adopted, assuming similar trends in the Bay watershed (which has roughly mimicked national population increases), the watershed area population would be about 15 million people in 2030.  Instead, it is at nearly 17 million now, headed for 25 million or more by 2050.

Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered environmental issues for The Baltimore Sun from 1974 – 2006 and was an educator at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for five years. He is author of several books about Chesapeake Bay and has written for National Geographic, The New York Times and The Boston Globe. He teaches writing and environmental studies at Salisbury University, and contributes regularly to Chesapeake Bay Magazine and the
Bay Journal News Service . He currently lives in Salisbury, MD, where he is a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University and a contributor to the Bay Journal.

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