When the Chesapeake Bay restoration program began in earnest in 1983, with the signing of the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement, it was hailed as the beginning of a new era of interjurisdictional partnering to save a national treasure. And so it was.
With the recognition that a "cooperative approach" was needed "to fully address the extent, complexity, and sources of pollutants entering the Bay," Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus created the Chesapeake Executive Council with a commitment to "assess and oversee implementation of coordinated plans to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay."
This unique partnership of federal, state and city governments, of Republican and Democratic leadership, grew to be recognized internationally as one of the most successful multijurisdictional restoration efforts in the world. Led by officials who acted from a place of collaboration and restoration, with a vision that extended beyond their own jurisdictional lines or federal responsibilities, the partnership matured, establishing ambitious goals, forging unprecedented science and creating a culture of exploration, sharing and dialogue. The supporting restoration bureaucracy the agreement generated reflected a diversity of interests and expertise, where stakeholders dealt with complex problems from a unified commitment to accomplish progressive change.
That was then, this is now.
Today, the partnership is in a state of disarray. Longtime players within the Chesapeake Bay restoration community quietly lament the loss of cooperative commitment. The partnership, once so vibrant, so bipartisan, so full of ambition, hope and ideals, is now a partnership in name only.
Case in point: The last meeting of the Executive Council took place in August in Virginia. But Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell did not attend, and he was not alone in disregarding the meeting. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, following in the footsteps of his predecessor — former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, an Executive Council member who repeatedly failed to participate in its meetings — also decided to forgo attending.
With lackluster commitment to attendance, as well as to dialogue and discussion, what was the outcome of this recent Executive Council meeting? Nothing. Not a single new interjurisdictional goal, policy or initiative.
When one attends the current meetings of the bureaucracy, one inevitably experiences stakeholders pursuing their own narrow agendas, protecting their particular parochial interests, their state borders or their governmental authorities.
Perhaps this devolution is but a reflection of what we have seen happen across our nation at both the state and federal level. Officials from differing parties and perspectives no longer cross the aisle with the same commitment to accomplishing a common goal or change. Rather, they repeatedly retreat to their corners, in preparation for another round of clobbering each other in the ring.
The Chesapeake Bay can ill afford the ongoing lack of commitment to regional partnering and solutions. While we have stayed the precipitous decline that plagued the Chesapeake in 1983, it remains far from healthy. Perhaps we need our current Executive Council members to revisit the history of the Chesapeake Bay restoration partnership and determine how it was that an EPA administrator originally appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon could forge with a Democratic Virginia governor who was the son-in-law of former President Lyndon Johnson a collaborative commitment to and vision of a restored Chesapeake that crossed state and federal lines of geography and authority.
"What's past is prologue," wrote Shakespeare. In this case, let's hope so.