A Conversation with Chesapeake Bay Foundation's CEO

“They All Matter.”

CBF CEO Will Baker interviewed by Eric Letsinger

Photo by Mike Busada/Mike B Photography.

Photo by Mike Busada/Mike B Photography.

If you haven’t been to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s headquarters in Annapolis, MD, you’ll thank yourself if you do. It’s a unique and thoughtful tribute to the elegant notion of minimizing our impact on nature as we live, work, and play. Every detail, every material choice, and every operating system design is both thought- and conversation-provoking. Will Baker, CEO, greets me at the top of the wide-open, wooden stairs, which is where the Bay herself comes into full view. “She sells herself, doesn’t she?” he says as he gestures to the expansive bay view we pass on our way to his office. I make small talk about the building features as we walk. I ask which features help the bay the most. “They all matter, Eric. They all matter,” he said. Will has served the Bay diligently for 41 straight years; 36 years as CBF’s CEO…and they have all mattered.

Eric: Let’s start from the top. Armed with strong Liberal Arts degree from Trinity College, “when and how and why” did the Bay call you?
Will: I fell into this totally by accident…I had other plans. I was hoping to find work as an architect and then go to architectural school. Through a series of what seemed like mishaps at the time, including losing my apartment, I stumbled into CBF’s headquarters by chance. It had been started by a group of businessmen, sailors, and fishermen, led by Arthur Sherwood in 1967.  I started as an intern, caught the bug and here I am 41 years later.  I got lucky.

Eric: CBF has a bunch of arrows in its quiver…advocacy, education, litigation, restoration…and now Finance, through our Environment Impact Bond work together.  Which tools did CBF start with? 
Will: The original vision is still in action…"save the bay"…that’s been the mandate since Day One.  In terms of arrows in the quiver, we’ve always been in the legal, advocacy, research, and education businesses. There’s no use in doing one without the others. The more intertwined they are, the better. Engaging teachers and students is at the core of who we are and have always been. They are force multipliers…for today and tomorrow. We’ve gotten more sophisticated in our strategic communications across targeting, messaging, and mediums. While we occasionally get thrown into a national agenda, our geographic focus is the 6 states in this watershed [DE, MD, PA, VA, NJ, NY]. We used to be in the land conservation field, but that space matured and attracted other highly-specialized players. No need for redundancies when others do it well, so we play a support role with our partners in that realm. 

Eric: What made you recently add finance to the CBF Toolbox?
Will: Finance…that’s the new frontier for us and we’re thrilled to be working with Quantified Ventures to replicate the work you did with DC Water to other areas of this watershed. Just prior to meeting you, our board challenged us to consider embarking on efforts to pursue impact investments to scale our efforts. They said, “You are missing the future unless you are considering Environmental Impact Bonds.” Within days, we heard you speak at the White House about your DC Water Environmental Impact Bond to scale green infrastructure to manage stormwater. The pieces just fell into place and we’re now off and running. We all have a lot to learn in this realm and we’re approaching it with a long-term, optimistic view…one step at time, just like we do everything else!

Eric: Well, how’s the Bay?
Will: Hasn’t been this good in 50 years…oxygen, critters, plants, pollution, water quality...pick a slice. About a decade ago, we started to see “blips,” some positive signs here and there that the Bay is on the mend. Today, scientists are calling these signs “a trend” and not just a blip. So, we’ve had 10 years of improved data. We can now refer to it as “systemically improving.”  That’s a big deal, which we celebrate. Recent articles are beginning to reference the Bay as a model for other geographies. Today’s Baltimore Sun had an article that stated that the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen dead zones has increased tenfold since 1950 as the water warms. The article references the Chesapeake as a model where zero oxygen areas have disappeared thanks to better sewage treatment, better farming practices and successful laws like the Clean Water Act. The fact that other countries (China, India, Peru) are now looking to the Chesapeake for lessons on how to protect ecosystems is something that we are getting our heads around. While we’re proud of all that has improved around here (40 percent of these waters now meet the quality standards), we’re also quite aware of how far we have to go—60 percent more.

Eric: What do you worry about the most?
Will: I worry about how quickly things can slide backwards. You don’t have to look further than Lake Erie for the answer. It was declared “fixed” in the late 80s, so they took their eye off the ball. It’s now a 700-mile algae bloom [he shows the aerial pictures…not good]. Lake Erie is the drinking source for millions who are now at risk.

Eric: What’s different in that region than this one?
Will: There wasn’t a CBF of Great Lakes. There wasn’t an organization full of people who woke up every day with the mission of keeping both the risks of neglect and opportunities for action front and center to the public so they don’t take their foot off the gas. 

Eric: What were some of the biggest milestones for the Chesapeake towards getting where it is today?
Will: When we got a TMDL; that was a big deal [TMDL = Total Maximum Daily Load; a regulatory term in the Clean Water Act describing a plan for restoring impaired waters that identifies the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards]. Suddenly, we had a big stick and a 2015 deadline by which to fix stuff. We had a blueprint. This all came as result of our setting lawsuit with the EPA for not enforcing the Clean Water Act, which all ended when President Obama issued a TMDL for this 64,000-square-mile area.

Eric: What do you say to those younger, future leaders out there who might be considering safer career paths rather than jumping into “big mission” service?
Will: We always had this goal of big success, but we never thought it was coming tomorrow—or the next. We set tough objectives and push ourselves and found a way to be happy with incremental progress. We also learned to prioritize the big stuff. First, we dealt with the sewer stuff, then non-point concerns, then air, and now urban and suburban run off (nitrogen and phosphorus), which is the only source of pollution that is still increasing. It’s also the most expensive. It’s now what’s in front of us, which is why we are so excited about the Environmental Impact Bond model which showed up right on time!

Eric: What have been the most consistent barriers to innovation?
Will: Money and political will. The science has always been leading the charge and the solutions exist. We sometimes get caught up in false debates. “Should we tackle phosphorus or nitrogen in the water?” The science says both (nitrogen in saline, phosphorus in fresh) because in this watershed, they meet.

Eric: You have a reputation for working tirelessly to save the Bay. Taking on and relentlessly pursuing a big mission like that takes grit.  Where do you get your grit?
Will: We’re serving a master that both demands it and deserves it. The mission attracts a certain type. Some come and go in six months. For those that stick around, they do so for a long stretch. They dig in, they roll up their sleeves, they innovate, they try, they learn, they do...rinse and repeat. It’s a perfect sized mission. It’s big enough to feel massively important, but small enough to think you can make a difference. Some days, I feel like I am…some, not so much. The trick is to keeping taking steps forward…one after the other…because they all matter.

Eric Letsinger