Money is Power: Institutions and Management of the Chesapeake Bay

Money is Power: Institutions and Management of the Chesapeake Bay

            Since 1983, local, state, and federal governments have worked together to curb pollution from entering the Chesapeake Bay, yet today serious improvements to the environmental quality of this large and ecologically important estuary remain to be seen. Unlike many cases of environmental policy in the United States, the science of the environmental destruction of the Chesapeake Bay is clear (Layzer 2016, 116). The environmental protection goals of groups like the Chesapeake Bay Program and the EPA have defined the problems threatening the bay’s ecosystem, yet proper policy implementation has not been achieved because of the conflicting interests of institutions, including but not limited to state governments, the federal government, and interest groups like industry and environmentalists (Layzer 2016).

For this reason, the Chesapeake Bay Case outlined by Judith Layzer (2016) in The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy demonstrates the complexity of multi-state environmental policy making and environmental protection, and also serves as an example of the importance of federalism in the environmental policy making process in the United States. According to Kernell (2016), authority can be defined as the “acknowledged right to make a particular decision” and according to Dowding (2011) power is “the capacity to get others to do what they would not otherwise do.” With these definitions in mind, this response will analyze the power and authority of institutions involved in the Chesapeake Bay policy process and will highlight how these institutions collaborate, compete, and conflict in the pursuit of ecosystem-based management of the bay.

Beginning in 1980s, the EPA and the states Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, worked together on the Chesapeake Bay Agreement to address the point, non-point, and atmospheric sources of pollution contributing to the declining ecosystem of the bay. However, many of the efforts attempted under this agreement and in each state yielded minimal environmental improvements. Because of states’ lack of power, there were many challenges to policy implementation. As Layzer (2016, 106) discusses, Perdue Farms, Inc. claimed that if regulations increase their operation costs they won’t be able to survive and suggested that pollution reductions should be driven by market forces. Because of the power and influence of industrial agricultural companies like Perdue Farms, “the states devised lax agricultural regulations that were complemented by minimal enforcement, as public officials preferred to work with the industry rather than adopt an adversarial posture” (106). And, if regulations were set, they were voluntary, or companies legally avoided changing their pollution emissions (107). Although the state governments possessed the authority to regulate agriculture, their lack of political and economic power prevented them from enforcing stringent regulations.

By the early 2000s, media outlets and interest groups, specifically the Washington Post and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, highlighted discrepancies between government reports and the actual environmental quality of the bay, which was much worse than the Chesapeake Bay Program suggested (115). After realizing the failure of the voluntary regulations, William Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, claimed that the past “voluntary” and “collaborative” governance should be replaced with “a governing body with the power to create and enforce laws and the authority to levy taxes” (116). Baker’s suggestion directly critiqued both the lack of power and authority of state governments in regulating polluters.

At the same time, the media and interest groups served as powerful institutions that both drew attention to issues with Chesapeake Bay policy implementation and motivated the government to take action. For example, in 2009 environmentalists sent 19,000 letters to the Obama administration, convincing the EPA that, as the letters argued, “we need to penalize bad actors” (119). Also at this time, President Obama declared the Chesapeake a national treasure and created a federal leadership committee under Executive Order 13508 Chesapeake Bay Restoration and Protection (118). Additionally, in 2008, the Farm Bill allocated $188 million dollars to reduce pollution in the bay and the federal stimulus package promised $878 million to the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund (119). This environmental activism combined with the political and economic commitments of the Obama administration led to a defining shift in the approach to tackle pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. The increased involvement of the administration and executive branch shifted the approach from a “collaborative” effort between states and the EPA to a more authoritative approach where the EPA pursued a “get-tough” strategy (120). It is likely that the federal government was able to pursue a more stringent policy because of the financial assistance the administration had promised to states in the aforementioned State Revolving Loan Fund.

The federal government’s financial power and legal authority motivated states and local governments to do things that they would would not do otherwise and go against the interests of local business and industry to enforce environmental policy. Today states have established stricter regulations and are on track to meet goals (122). The Chesapeake Bay case demonstrates that just because an institution has authority does not mean it has the power to enforce a specific policy goal. Additionally, this case highlights the importance of federalism and the structure of the United States government. Without financial assistance from the federal government, it is likely that local and state governments would continue to prioritize the financial interests of job-creating, local industry than the environmental and public health interests of citizens.



Dowding, Keith M. 2011. Encyclopedia of Power. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc. (March 20, 2018).

Kernell, Samuel, and Steven S. Smith. 2016. Principles and Practice of American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Sixth edition. Washington, D.C.: SAGE Publications, CQ Press.

Layzer, Judith. 2016. The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy. 4th ed. Los Angeles:SAGE Publications, CQ Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *