After more than three decades and $24 billion spent on restoration, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual report card indicates that the bay is little better off now than when we started. The most recent annual report card gave it a D+. It has never received a grade higher than a C — and that’s on an inflated scale.
Would the bay have been worse had we not made this effort? Absolutely yes. But should we accept a return on investment this low after nearly a quarter of a century, and continue to invest in this venture? To make matters worse, more of the same effort will not even keep us where we are in the face of climate change. Today the rate of environmental change is more rapid than at any time in human history, and coastal environments like the Chesapeake Bay are at the leading edge of that change.
It stands to reason, then, that restoration — to return to an earlier time and condition — is an outmoded concept for large coastal environments like the Chesapeake Bay and should be abandoned, or at least complemented with a program to shape its future.
Winston Churchill once remarked that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future. I think we are perilously close to running the risk of losing the future bay unless we move quickly and decisively with a new approach.
Before the end of this century, local sea level could be twice the global average — 6 to 9 feet higher than today — altering the tidal range and increasing the vulnerability of many of the communities bordering the bay to flooding from coastal storms.
The average temperature of the bay will continue to warm, and by 2100, could be more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today. With warmer temperatures, dissolved oxygen levels will drop, aggravating and expanding in time and space the current summer dead zones. Many of the bay’s signature animals that can move will have moved farther north to stay within their preferred temperature ranges. Those that cannot move will either adapt or die. Animals from farther south will move up along the coast and into the bay creating a new more subtropical ecosystem.
Most of the bay’s wetlands will be drowned and lost. Fresh water inputs will increase and be more variable. The battle for dominion between the rivers and the tides to control the motion and mixing of the bay’s waters will continue, and by the end of the century the tides will dominate. The circulation pattern will change from the classical partial-mixed estuary today in the direction of a well-mixed estuary. It’s clear that the future bay will be very different from the present bay, but we have the knowledge and the tools to shape it. We need to begin now.
We will still need many of the programs being conducted under the Chesapeake Bay Program to control the inputs of contaminants into the bay from a growing population in the expansive watershed that includes portions of six states and the District of Columbia. And we will need to continue to try to restore oyster populations in an increasingly acidic bay. But these strategies need to be supplemented with new approaches, including rigorous scenario planning to plot a range of plausible pathways to alternative futures and to identify disruptive forces we can use to put us onto a new trajectory, one that will bring us into closer alignment with societal expectations and with future natural processes than our present approach.
J.R. Schubel’s (firstname.lastname@example.org) most recent book about the bay is “The Future Chesapeake: Shaping the Future” (Archway Publishing, 2021). He is a former associate director of the Chesapeake Bay Institute at Johns Hopkins University.