Fisheries Conservation photo

On Feb. 5 headlines like this ran on news sites across the nation:
From Alaska to Florida, 21 attorneys general join fight to halt Chesapeake Bay cleanup

The story went on to explain the states’ opposition.

“If this [cleanup] is left to stand,” they argued in their joint amicus brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, “other watersheds, including the Mississippi River Basin, could be next.”

Imagine that.

But that story had no legs. It was gone from the news cycle almost as quickly has it appeared.

So I was not totally surprised when John Page Williams – life-long angler, fishing guide, and senior naturalist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – had a question for me: “Why aren’t the fishermen in those states outraged about this?”

My answer was that when it comes to environmental issues, most American sportsmen are a reflection of the nation as a whole: If it isn’t affecting them directly – taking fish out of their creels, game out of their bag – they aren’t aware, and don’t get involved. As pollsters say, “It has to be a kitchen table or wallet issue.”

Like other Americans, most sportsmen have yet to make the connection that national environmental regulations are like ecosystems. Each link is important to the health of the whole.

For example, if a private user is allowed to void federal regulations protecting a duck marsh in North Dakota, waterfowlers in Louisiana will soon be in trouble, too.

So Williams wonders: How can sportsmen in those 21 states not be outraged by their governments’ attempt to block this effort to get Chesapeake polluters to clean up their own mess?

And that’s really what this controversy is all about.

The Chesapeake Bay is the collecting pool at the end of a watershed that covers 64,000 square miles reaching into six states. Runoff from farms, factories, cities and suburbs emptying into the bay eventually took its toll, and what one of the continent’s most productive estuaries fell into decline.

By the1970s scientists confirmed that pollution had resulted in one of the world’s first marine “dead zones” – an area so devoid of oxygen little life could survive in it.

“Nearly every human activity generates excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment,” said Williams. “All are necessary for an ecosystem to function, but by 1983, we had elevated those pollutants by 600 percent, like feeding a human 15,000 calories a day instead of 2,500.”

Cleanup efforts were tried, but complete victory wasn’t possible until President Obama issued an executive order in 2009 bringing the EPA into the process, forcing cooperation of all the states in the watershed.

Among the key tools in the cleanup are the EPA’s standard for the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of pollutants that states can allow from runoff, including those from agricultural operations, urban wastewater treatment plants, and suburban drainage systems, among others.

“In the last 30 years, we have begun a turnaround on each of those fronts, even in the face of population growth,” said Williams. “Farmers and wastewater plant operators are working miracles. But there’s still the other half to deal with, and it’s the toughest, because it touches us right where we live, in our homes, the roadways we drive on, the malls where we park and shop, and even in our choices of foods, which drive the shape of agriculture.”

The costs for the cleanup eventually could rise over $100 million for infrastructure improvements, most of which states will pass on to property owners.

That decision would seem like a no-brainer: Those doing the polluting should pay to clean it up. For example, if your neighbors dumped 100 pounds of horse manure on your lawn, you’d expect them to pay to have it hauled away (not to mention hosing down the lawn and planting some sweet-smelling roses.).

Few people were surprised when the Fertilizer Institute, National Pork Producers Council and National Chicken Council objected.

But when the attorneys general from 21 other states joined in, it left sportsmen in the Chesapeake drainage not just stunned, but angry. After all, these AGs were representing entire states, not just their own offices.

“How would people in Texas or Louisiana feel if they were trying to clean up a lake or bay in their state, and Maryland or Virginia tried to stop that effort?” asked Williams. “We haven’t heard much from sportsmen’s groups in those states. I really want to find out why they’re so quiet on this.”

Sure, this is probably happening far, far away from your home. But imagine how you’d feel if your attempts to get polluters to clean up their mess in your local fishing hole was suddenly being opposed by other states.

If you don’t feel a moral obligation to object, think of what a victory by these 21 states will mean for your future.

The nation long ago agreed the free flowing waters in this nation – like the air we breathe – are part of the public trust, owned jointly by all Americans and so managed by national rules and regulations.

And remember, when it comes to the federal laws and regulations that protect the environments producing our fish and wildlife, we are all connected.