He’s championed cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay for four decades

William Baker started as an intern at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and has been president since 1982. Recent findings indicate that bay cleanup processes are approximately halfway to their 2025 goal.

David Karas
William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, points out the clarity of the water on a fall day.

On a cool fall day, Annapolis, Md., plays host to a variety of visitors – some attending a popular boat show, others just trying to get their hands on some delectable Maryland crab. Yet others are out on the water, showing why Annapolis’s nickname is America’s sailing capital.

One could credit the allure of the place to the town itself, but perhaps the real hero is the Chesapeake Bay.

“The Chesapeake Bay is extraordinary by any measure, whether historically, culturally, or environmentally,” says William Baker, who has worked for four decades to preserve the waterway for future generations. “It is as productive a body of water as any in the world.”

Mr. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), a nonprofit founded in 1967 with a three-word mission statement: “Save the Bay.” Back then, concerns were raised about the deteriorating condition of the Chesapeake, owing to agricultural pollutants and air pollution, among other things. The conservation organization has since served as a watchdog and has fought to restore and enhance the Chesapeake Bay and its six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed – the home of more than 17 million people and 3,000 species of plants and animals.

The bay “covers an enormous amount of territory and affects the lives of millions of people, [and] without the CBF, it would have never turned around,” says Tom Stoner, a trustee emeritus of CBF. Mr. Stoner also praises the leadership of Baker, who has been president since 1982: “He has devoted his entire life to helping this bay turn around, and it is certainly with passion, and it is certainly with great skill.”

Baker first learned about CBF as a 22-year-old in 1976, while working a routine summer job. “I was a tree surgeon, and I was up a tree,” he recalls, chuckling. “The owner of the property came out and asked me if I wanted to save the bay. I said that would be fine.”

That property owner happened to be a CBF trustee, and thanks to the conversation, Baker has been with CBF ever since – landing an internship and then a job there, and becoming president within six years.

From the beginning, he was hooked.

“I love the scale,” he says. “It is big enough to be important, yet small enough to think that you can make a difference and be part of an organization that can make a difference.”

Of course, CBF isn’t the only organization trying to protect the bay. But it perhaps takes the broadest approach, working in multiple states and partnering with governments, businesses, schools, and other environmental organizations to further its mission.

Jeff Benoit, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Restore America’s Estuaries, speaks highly of the role CBF plays in keeping the public informed about the Chesapeake. “Whether it is individual citizens or industries, or corporations, so many people just depend on those bays,” says Mr. Benoit, whose organization is a network of conservation groups that includes CBF. “They need a spokesperson ... able to articulate and bring folks together around the important issues.”

With offices in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., CBF focuses on four activities: advocacy, at the federal level and in several states; restoration, involving concrete projects; education, reaching some 36,000 people annually; and litigation, which the nonprofit has used both reactively and proactively.

At the LEED Platinum headquarters

On a recent afternoon, Baker spoke with the Monitor in CBF’s Philip Merrill Environmental Center, the organization’s headquarters in Annapolis. Perched on the banks of the Chesapeake, it earned recognition as the world’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certified building.

Walking down the dock behind the facility, Baker is happy to point out the clarity of the water – a nonscientific, but poignant, indicator of the waterway’s health.

Early on, efforts to clean up the bay were hindered by backlash against CBF.

“We were criticized as being anti-Maryland and anti-Virginia,” Baker says. “The Chesapeake was revered, and rightly so, and if an organization or entity says, ‘Save the Bay,’ that implied that there was a problem and that the bay was not healthy.”

Baker considers the change he’s seen in that sentiment – and the understanding many have gained about human activity causing the bay’s pollution – as among CBF’s major accomplishments.

But despite the increased understanding, as well as science-backed agreements signed by states regarding pollution mitigation and waterway cleanup, time and again goals have been unmet and deadlines have passed.

A turning point came when CBF sued the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2009 over claims it failed to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act in the bay. A settlement negotiated with the Obama administration moved ahead on setting a total maximum daily load of pollution for the bay. In addition, milestones were established for states to work toward – with the objective of having practices in place to achieve 60 percent of the necessary pollution reductions by 2017, and 100 percent by 2025.

“It is a blueprint for how to bring the Chesapeake Bay back,” Baker says.

Recent findings indicate that new pollution reduction practices have brought the bay cleanup processes approximately halfway to their 2025 goal.

Groups in the agriculture sector, in particular, have opposed the regulations. So Baker and his team have gone to the mat to preserve the blueprint – notably, in joining the EPA as a full defendant in a legal challenge that reached the federal appellate level, where the challenge was rejected.

Jeff Corbin is a former senior adviser to the EPA administrator concerning the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River. He previously worked as assistant secretary of Natural Resources for Virginia and as a CBF scientist.

CBF has been, “inarguably, the voice that has pushed the Chesapeake Bay to be in the improved condition that it is in today,” Mr. Corbin says. It “walk[s] that fine line between being an aggressive advocate and being a productive partner. That is not always easy to do.”

Planting millions of trees and oysters

To date, CBF is credited with planting more than 2.5 million trees along streams and more than 200 million oysters in the bay, not to mention championing more sustainable fisheries management that has turned around dangerous trends, including depletion of striped bass.

As CBF nears its 50th anniversary next year, Baker looks at the overall course of events. “It just takes a long time to move big systems like the Chesapeake Bay system in either direction,” he says. “It took lots of abuse to make the bay start to fail systematically: We polluted it, we disrupted its natural mechanisms, and we took more fish and shellfish out than nature could put back.”

This led to a “cascading, vicious cycle,” he says, and a tipping point.

But “the same thing can happen in reverse, and we now believe it is happening,” he says. “We think we have passed a tipping point where improvement is starting to occur on a systemic basis.”

Corbin, the former EPA official and CBF scientist, lauds the improvements seen in the bay and points to Baker’s role. “Will is the voice of the Chesapeake Bay,” he says. “He can meet with governors, he can meet with EPA administrators, and he can sit down with you. And he can talk the science and he can talk the policy. It is in his blood.”

Although Baker is pleased with the progress that is being reported, he acknowledges that much work remains to be done. And even if the 2025 objectives are met, it will still be necessary to monitor the bay to ensure it continues to be a healthy and productive waterway.

“The job will never be done,” he says.

How to take action

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Song Saa Foundation initiates projects to improve the communities and natural environment of Cambodian islands. Take action: Complete an internship on tropical marine conservation.

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Helen Keller International aids vulnerable people by combating blindness, poor health, and malnutrition. Take action: Donate funds to empower women through gardening.

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