Commentary: Strong-arm tactics don’t foster cooperation on Bay cleanup

By Tim Rowland

Bay Journal News Service

At a recent supper party in the foothills of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, a fisherman had just returned from Kent Narrows with a bushel of Maryland Blue Crabs.

The crabs, rest their souls, made wonderful emissaries.

The light conversation that punctuated the picking would have fit right in around tables in Salisbury or Solomons Island: The size of the crabs, their habits, their tastes in bait and, more generally, the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Sympathy for the bay far from its waters

Lighthouse at Sandy Shoal

A hundred or more miles from its sparkling, reedy inlets, the Bay is still very much in the psyche of people throughout its watershed. Many groups in the Appalachian foothills enthusiastically plant trees along local waterways—doing what they can to stem harmful runoff. To be sure, it is not the matter of livelihood that it is to the east, but most everyone who can pick a crab is aware of, and sympathetic toward, the Bay’s issues.

Obviously, the Bay needs as large a constituency as it can muster in the six watershed states, because a cranky state electorate can drag down the most well-intentioned of issues—even those with the full might and muscle of the federal government behind them.

So, with an upstream population that is predisposed to be sympathetic to the bay, the message to state and federal bureaucrats should be: Don’t blow it.

Don’t lay down the law, don’t throw your weight around, don’t come in like a blunderbuss with threats and scare tactics. Don’t protect one person’s interests at the expense of another’s.

Because that’s not going to help those responsible for cleaning up the bay’s headwaters with their cause.

Chesapeake Bay satellite image. Photo by University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Photo by University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Fumbling bureaucracies

Yet, this summer, state and federal bureaucracies appear to be fumbling away a chance to get what we might call the “red counties” of the blue states on their side.

As most Bay advocates are aware, the EPA is in the process of working with the watershed states and the District of Columbia to restrict the amount of nutrients, phosphorous and sediment in the Chesapeake’s feeder waters. Whimsically known as a “pollution diet,” the EPA has somewhat ominously declared that those jurisdictions that fail to submit adequate plans for reducing pollution will suffer “consequences” that could cost localities future development and grant money.

Two problems: One, to rural politicians and residents of the Piedmont that sounds a lot like a threat. Two, the federal deficit being what it is, they are likely as not to spit on grant money, whether it benefits them or not.

Ridiculous price tags

In Maryland, salt was poured into the wound when bureaucrats cheerfully showed up at public meetings telling local governments that they were theoretically on the hook for millions of dollars worth of pollution-reduction measures by 2025. In Washington County, Md., the tab for Bay cleanup came to $1.1 billion, or better than $7,000 for every man, woman and child.

In the Potomac River town of Hancock, a stunned council was informed that its responsibilities for Bay cleanup totaled $31 million — almost 20 times the town’s entire annual operating budget. The town’s generally progressive mayor called the numbers “astonishingly ridiculous.”

To the west, in Allegany County, the commissioners sent back their nutrient-reduction plan to the state with a polite note stating that they would be happy to implement it when someone showed up to pay for it.

Throughout the region, irritated farmers have packed public hearings, upset that stream buffers are eating up more and more of their tillable acreage. Country folk are nervous that the state will step in and demand costly upgrades to their septic systems, as proposed new regulations make likely. To all of the above, there does not appear to be much give and take.

Impossible expectations destroy best of intentions

From the Blue Ridge of Virginia to the hills of Western Maryland and West Virginia to the rolling farmlands of central Pennsylvania, people care about the Bay. To some degree, many would consider themselves to be stakeholders.

But when local people and governments are hit with what they see as impossible expectations, the best of intentions can shatter on the shoals of practicality. When they are told that, in effect, they will be punished if they don’t learn to sprout wings and fly, those in the Bay’s far reaches who might have been counted upon to help will become apathetic at best or hostile at worst.

Certainly the Bay advocates believe that the occasional workshop or public hearing constitutes “working with” people in the Piedmont. But even if it’s at a public hearing, having the terms dictated to them does not fit with the locals’ idea of a healthy relationship, one that will necessary if we are to have a healthy Chesapeake Bay.

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.”

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. Andrew Grigsby

    Just because we all
    peacefully decide to drive our car over a cliff doesn’t mean the force we call
    gravity won’t pull us to our death.


    This was my first
    response to Tim Rowland’s recent column: “If you want cooperation, don’t throw
    your weight around.” He presented folksy, rural indignation at big-government
    regulators rudely demanding extreme payments to address a remote issue. It’s a
    familiar, generally irresistible set-up. But I believe that the column glossed
    over a critical, perhaps the critical, point: what if the premises driving
    those government policies are true? (How perfect the policies are is another


    The column’s focus
    was on social dynamics, basically saying that government staff should be more
    tactful as messengers. No one would argue with that. (Though I’ll point out
    that it is remarkable to witness how a calm hearing out and careful
    consideration of a hostilely-presented message can take the combativeness out
    of the messenger.) But what of their message? Rowland maintains that they made
    “impossible” demands. He says his rural neighbors do care about the health of
    the Chesapeake far downstream. But the column clearly does not suggest that if
    the federal agency staff had been all smiles and sweet tea then the leaders of
    Hancock, Maryland would have jumped to pay out $31M.


    It certainly is true
    that our society’s response to environmental issues will be worked out via
    social interaction: politics; debate; negotiations. And “healthy
    relationships”, as Rowland puts it, undeniably make those interactions more
    pleasant and efficient. But it’s equally true that the ecological responses to
    our society’s run-off (like hormone disruption, eutrophication, etc.) occur based on
    today’s chemical and physical realities, not the friendliness of our public


    The scientific
    evidence is clear. We are facing some serious environmental challenges. The
    Chesapeake’s stormy health record is only one of several more visible local
    issues. The rapid species extinction, the brutal climate changes, the
    toxification of the biosphere – these demand extraordinary responses. (Many
    have compared the challenge to FDR’s “impossible” military hardware production
    goals for 1942 – that the country beat.)


    So our politics does
    not serve us if it cannot acknowledge ecological and economic realities.
    Learning that our society has been free-riding (not paying the full cost of our
    lifestyles) for decades is a hard lesson. It means that big changes are ahead.
    The changes may seem impractical or impossible, but that doesn’t change
    scientific realities like depleted topsoil, collapsed fisheries, or dead zones
    in the bay. However diplomatically the lesson is presented, if the evidence is
    compelling then we have to be adults and face the music. And the sooner we
    start, the better.


    In the Chesapeake
    watershed, human society has been free-riding for a very long time. We’ve
    consumed and polluted with insufficient regard for real ecological limits.
    There is a price to pay for this: either extreme degradation of the bay (and
    its many negative externalities); massive investment in restorative measures
    (most of which have many positive externalities); or something in between. We
    may grasp at scapegoats when the utility company comes to collect on long unpaid
    bills, but if we used that resource then we finally must pay up.


    In the end, we’ll
    get something in between. Like Rowland, I hope that our engagement with our
    government becomes more civil and productive and that the Chesapeake’s crabs
    and other life thrive. To those ends, I offer what I think are two critical
    steps towards those goals: we should be willing to look beyond the messenger to
    the actual message; and we should be willing to accept science when there is
    sufficient evidence.

  2. anon

    “Strong-arm” tactics are usually in order when all all other avenues have proven ineffective.  You can only tell an unruly child “no” so many times before you have to spank him/her.  The Clean Water Act has been in place for 40 years.  Polluting industries, including conventional farms  (no, I do NOT look at farming any differently than any other polluting industry), have had 40 years to get with the program.  I, for one, am tired of paying the external costs that these polluters burden the rest of society with.   

  3. Tdongreenlane

    We won’t have a bay in 10 years…it is so polluted now…it stinks..what will it look like in 5 years let alone ten…from an airplane it looks like dark brown and red instead of blue and green…such a shame…our monies are being eaten up for other less important things..More, More and More!!!!~

  4. Ned Taylor

    The current measures do not “clean the bay”, they merely try to prevent additional nutrients from entering the water by limiting activities, some of which are necessary for continued economic viability and even existence. The WIP Phase II plan which is “on track” and “meeting milestones”  consists in its early phases with planning, meeting and promulgation of regulations as its milestones..  There are no milestones involving actual improvements in water quality until very late in the program, and there are no plans to review annually the effectiveness of the very expensive mandates in delivering cleaner water to the Bay.  There is only the assurance of models which many experts question and a price tag which is totally beyond local government resources. The true irony is there is a technology, called algal turf scrubbing developed my Dr Adey at the Smithsonian and currently being piloted and developed right at the University of Maryland by Dr. Pat Kangas, which can and does remove. the nutrients and sediment from the water.  It is estimated the water flowing into the Bay could be cleaned with 1000 acres of this technology distributed throughout the watershed in 5-10 acre sites for a cost in the neighborhood of $500 million, a fraction of the cost of the WIP for Maryland alone.  The system would produce about 70,000 lbs dry weight of algae per day, which has been shown to be useful in producing animal feed, fertilizers and even plastics. And the Bay would be clean

  5. JaySiegert

    Female crabs,a bushell of Female Crabs….Why aren’t they Male Crabs….Ban the keeping of Female Crabs….

  6. Dave

    Mr. Rowland:  Characterizing EPA’s insistence that the provisions of the Clean Water Act finally be implemented FORTY YEARS after becoming law as “strong arm tactics” is truly ridiculous.  Further, there are many hundreds of miles of streams in the headwaters of Chesapeake watershed streams that are degraded by nutrients, sediments, and other pollutants, so the kinds of solutions EPA is mandating are necessary to protect not only the Bay but local communities throughout the region.  Finally, we all pay the costs of the water pollution that is continuing way beyond the time when we had the knowledge and abilities to stop it.  It’s not the EPA that’s pitting one group against another; it’s those polluters who want to keep passing their costs on to the rest of us in the form of damages to our collective property rights.

    • Maxine012

       Thank you Dave. Mr. Rowland seems to be the kind of reporter who wants to be liked wherever he may go. Hard
      to be objective with that burden.

  7. popppy


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