In the 1970s, scientists identified the planet's first marine dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Dead zones are areas where the water lacks so much oxygen that nothing can live. Today, the bay's marine life is still threatened by pollution, overharvesting and disease.
But Jeffrey Plank wants to change that. He and his colleagues at the University of Virginia have developed an unusual watershed management tool: the Bay Game.
“We created the Bay Game because we wanted to change the way that we represent the Earth in our university courses. We teach environmental science, we teach commerce, we teach law, policy, architecture, separately. But the Earth is a system of these interconnected components," Plank says.
To play the game, each student, sitting in front of a laptop, represents a potential Bay polluter: There are farmers, watermen, land developers and policy makers.
College freshman Saman Ehsan is a beef cattle farmer whose manure runoff pollutes the Bay. So she has some choices to make.
“[I have to choose] whether I want to use conventional or sustainable farming and how I want to go about with waste treatment. I think those are the two major decisions," Ehsan says.
PhD student Kyle Oyama says it's hard to change the Bay's future when there are so many competing forces. In the Bay Game, Oyama is a land regulator for the State of Pennsylvania.
"I taxed the land developers $4,000 per acre, and I also incentive them $5,000 per acre for using sustainable methods," he says.
Oyama's incentives attracted land developers Eliza Stoner and Patrick Harrison.
"The incentives for the sustainable infill have gone up again, so we are considering putting all of our profits into buying more of that because that seems to be the trend," Stoner says.
Harrison says the incentives have reaffirmed his decision to buy land.
"Yeah, and my 50-acre purchase is looking pretty good now, considering the incentives are going up for sustainable development," Harrison adds.
By the end of the game, the Bay is not faring so well. But Plank sees it as a win.
"The first 'Aha' moment that happens in a gameplay is when one leader in one watershed team says, 'Wait, before we make our next moves, let's talk and compare what we're doing and see if we can align for better results,'" he says. "Once that happens, all the watersheds want to do the same thing."