Ellerbrock: Are we racing to the bottom of the Bay? | Opinion


Ellerbrock is director of the Center for Economic Education at Virginia Tech, deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and member of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Virtually every living creature is a stakeholder indebted to the world’s water bodies for our existence and sustenance. Given the widespread impact of the Chesapeake Bay, who is responsible for its care? All Americans have a stake in its future.

President Trump’s draft budget zeroes out federal support for the Bay Program, leaving states to foot the entire bill. This can cause a “race to the bottom” when some states lower their environmental standards to attract industry. Racing to the bottom — the political philosophy promoting states’ rights by allowing flexible standards in labor laws, health care, public education, banking regulations, gun laws, criminal punishment, inheritance taxes, etc. — is a potential downside of federalism — the political philosophy promoting states’ rights by allowing flexible standards in labor laws, health care, public education, banking regulations, gun laws, criminal punishment, inheritance taxes, etc.

Articulated by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in the Federalist Papers (1788), federalism was and is an effort to define and limit the role and powers of our national government, leaving the rest to the states. After American independence from Britain, our 13 colonies wrestled with each other over practical issues, including whether to have their own militias, taxation, currency, marriage laws, and slavery.

Federalism advocates for federal leadership in those areas of life in which it is not in the collective interest to allow states complete autonomy. The divisive institution of slavery manifested the dilemma in horrific devastation, culminating in our tragic Civil War that almost ended our noble experiment in democracy.

Some of our elected leaders assert that states should be responsible for taking care of their own waters. But water knows no jurisdictional boundaries. Half the freshwater entering the bay comes from the Susquehanna. Without Federal oversight, what happens to tourism in Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore if Pennsylvania continues to send its waste downstream? Regional compacts, where each state takes responsibility for its waters within a larger framework of federal guidance (with appropriate carrots and sticks), provide continued water quality monitoring as a stellar example of cooperative Federalism – the very principle on which the Clean Water Act (CWA) is founded.

Serving our common good, the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure. The Bay watershed includes six states (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia) and Washington D.C. Approximately 18 million people live in the Bay watershed, including 10 million near its shores. It encompasses 64,000 square miles of land with 150 major rivers and streams feeding the Bay. Citizen actions many miles away can impact the Bay positively and/or negatively and those who rely on it. By water and word, we are all linked.

Washington has been instrumental regarding the health of the Bay. USGS continuously monitors in stream water quality to evaluate clean up efforts. NOAA manages fisheries to ensure stocks remain plentiful. FEMA funds the engineer of record in 104 Soil & Water Conservation Districts and all Virginia State Park Dams, plus supports mapping enhancements to the Virginia Flood Risk Information System. EPA supports the states’ cost-share programs for farmers, nutrient management training, manure testing, and homeowner lawn-care education.

“Bay states” have invested more in the Bay than the Federal government, but they cannot afford to adequately restore and protect the watershed and Bay by themselves. Parallel to the Federal Superfund Site clean-up program, the comprehensive costs to do the job right and equitably are enormous. Federal withdrawal will not only harm the Bay significantly but will also force the Commonwealth to reduce core functions authorized under the CWA and other valuable programs, what economists call “unintended consequences” (perhaps intended in this case?).

America needs to decide about fundamental intra- and intergenerational issues. How much are we willing to support the quality of life of fellow living and future citizens?? Environmental conservation raises both issues. Today, who speaks for the unborn?

The argument that it’s a matter of jobs versus the environment is a false dichotomy. A robust economy requires a healthy resource base, or both collapse. With future Americans, we all share a common household (oikos), the Greek root of economics, ecology and ecumenism. As ancient philosophers observed, for the three-legged household to be sustainable, we have to pay the bills, steward the land (water and air), and somehow all get along amidst a plurality of values (political, cultural, moral, spiritual).

After God got fed up with humanity and decided to start over via Noah and the Great Flood, God then declared an eternal covenant, promising to never again curse creation (GEN 6:6, 8:21, 9:9-11). Note what God apparently did not say: “I will forever prevent foolish humanity from destroying itself!” Perhaps we have been warned.

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