Editorial: Bay effort gains climate focus

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A new directive signed by leaders of the Chesapeake Bay Program wisely elevates climate change to a major concern affecting all aspects of its work to clean the watershed and protect the bay for future generations.

As Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam, chair of the program’s executive council, said at a signing ceremony early in October, the new emphasis on climate change “is critically important and long overdue.”

The role that climate change plays in the bay’s problems has been growing over the years, and so has our understanding of that. It is indeed past time to deal fully with its implications.

Back in the early 1980s, environmentalists and others sounded the alarm that the bay was dying because of decades of neglect, ignorance and bad practices. Rapid development, destruction of wetlands and forests, air pollution including from vehicles, and stormwater runoff polluted by sewage, fertilizers and animal waste were taking their toll. Large dead zones in the bay with little or no oxygen were killing fish, shellfish and other wildlife as well as the fertile habitat of aquatic plants.

The bay and the very way of life of communities along its shores was in jeopardy.

In response, nonprofits, academic institutions, the federal government, and local and state governments from the six states and the District of Columbia that make up the watershed formed the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The challenge could have been daunting, but the Chesapeake Bay Program has made progress in bringing the bay back to life and improving our ways of doing things.

But even though much has improved, annual state of the bay reports issued by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation show how fragile progress is, how much we need to step up efforts and continue to be vigilant.

In recent years, the effects of climate change have been recognized as a major reason when there’s a setback in restoration efforts. In 2014, the council agreed to work to make the watershed more resilient in the face of changing climate.

This new action signals that in recognition of the severity of climate change and its implications, the council believes it must do more than acknowledge the problem; it must take urgent action to address climate change in every aspect of its efforts,

Climate change causes warming seas and the melting of glaciers and polar ice, both of which cause sea levels to rise. Water levels in the bay are up about a foot higher than a century ago.

Rising sea levels bring more coastal flooding and erosion, as most people who live and drive in Hampton Roads are all too aware. When saltwater floods into marshes and wetlands, it damages vital habitat and spreads pollution.

Warming temperatures affect the bay’s waters, damaging the sea grasses that are habitat for crabs, fish and waterfowl. Warming temperatures also alter the life cycles and migration patterns of waterfowl.

Climate change brings more extreme weather — heat waves, droughts, heavy rains, more frequent and severe hurricanes and other storms. Storms and heavy rains mean more pollution in the bay and more floods.

The new directive wants climate change considered in all the program’s work. It also says that officials should follow the best climate science available. It aims to connect goals in restoring the bay with ways to increase resilience in the face of climate change.

One especially important goal in the directive is to make a priority of helping not only vulnerable habitats but also the human communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. That resolve recognizes that low-income Black and other minority communities are more likely to be affected by flooding and other problems. It rightly acknowledges that you can’t separate economic realities and human health from the health of the environment.

The Chesapeake Bay Program is vital work to restore and protect the bay that is at the heart of our way of life. It’s a major step forward to acknowledge the dangers of climate change and work in every way possible to minimize its dangers

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