Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 44
November 1 - 7, 2001
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So What’s New?
The Long View on Our Long Bay

The Chesapeake Bay — hailed as the crown jewel and queen of all the 850 bays and estuaries in the United States — is already ailing badly and aging prematurely. Now she seems on the verge of developing a low-grade fever.

The outlook at this time is not good.
— The late Evening Sun science editor William J. Perkinson in the “Chesapeake at Bay,” a 12-part series published in the late 1960s

“Perk,” as he was known in the newsroom at the Sunpapers before his premature death not long after the team — of which I was a member — completed the series on the Bay, wouldn’t have been surprised the other day when the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued its annual “State of the Bay Report.” The report card wasn’t good.

When Perk, Dean Mills, the other member of the writing team, and I sat down to review our assessments with managing editor Phil Heisler, we all agreed that both the short- and long-term outlook for the crown jewel wasn’t good. We agreed on something else, too.

People in Chesapeake Country weren’t willing to put their money — or anything else — where their mouths were. Everyone professed a love for the Bay, but few were willing to pay the price, monetarily or otherwise, to clean up the 195-mile-long waterway which, with its 150 tributaries, wets 4,400 square miles.

Our Big, Complex Bay
Big as she is — and she has 4,600 miles of shoreline in tidal waters — the mighty Chesapeake of which we brag to the world was being done in by those who loved her, those who used her and those unwilling to endure the sacrifices obviously necessary to save her. This was the assessment of Perk, Dean and this writer.

Her volume — some 18 trillion gallons of which some 45 billion gallons of surface water flow in and out of the Bay on an average day — was in a sorry shape. And we realized then, as now, that cleaning up the Chesapeake would involve more than just literally cleaning up the Bay proper from Cecil County to the Virginia Capes.

The mighty Chesapeake receives water from a basin that covers 74,000 square miles. All the water from an area of that expanse plays a vital role in the overall water quality of the Bay.

It wasn’t back then — and still isn’t — simply a matter of what’s in the Chesapeake at any moment but also of what’s heading in from farms, developments, marinas, commerce, industry, power plants, municipalities and just plain people in those 74,000 square miles. Chesapeake Country is indeed a complexity, and the Bay itself is, as we said at the time, a receptacle. It’s made up of what comes into it in those billions of gallons a day. In short, the mighty Chesapeake is oh so vulnerable.

Yet vulnerable as she is, over-used as she is and mistreated as she is, the Chesapeake is surprisingly forgiving. She still serves us well, far better than we deserve.

She absorbs our sewage, the wastes of industry and commerce and other pollutants fed directly into the water or from the air above her and her watershed, the runoff from farms, parking lots, highways and streets, the erosion we create as we develop and clear lands, cut trees, and so many other things inconsiderate of her welfare.

Thirty-two years ago when the Chesapeake at Bay series ran in the Evening Sun, here’s how we summed up the mighty Chesapeake as we saw her in 1969, when we described her as a body of water with her “own special mystique — many and all things to so many people.”

The Bay in ’69

  • She was a source of shellfish and finfish that created an economic base for independent watermen to the tune of $65 million annually.

  • To fisheries scientists, she was the world’s largest and possibly most productive, largely self-renewing underwater farm.

  • To recreationists, she was one of the best fishing holes anywhere, a boaters’ paradise, and in winter she was the home to one of the most prolific flights of waterfowl anywhere. There were diving, swimming, gunkholeing, water skiing, hiking her shores and just plain loafing — all adding up to $135 million to the economy at the time.

  • To environmental engineers, she was a concern, challenging them to maintain the integrity of her fragile ecological system against human incursions.

  • To those who supplied power, she meant a savings of $200 million a year in cooling costs, for her waters absorbed the heat from turbines when electricity was generated.

  • To commerce, she was a water highway on which 110 million tons of goods were imported and exported — some $3 to $4 billion dollars a year in volume.

  • To developers she represented 3,000 miles of shoreline that might still be developed for homes and industry.

  • To geographers, she represented 22 percent of the total area of Maryland.

That, allow me to remind you, was 32 years ago — and I need not remind you that we use the Bay even more today. Or perhaps, it probably is appropriate to assert that we misuse the Bay even more today.

And in ’77
Eight years later, in February of 1977, Jon Franklin, then the Evening Sun’s science writer (and later the winner of two Pulitzer prizes) and I were assigned to take another look at the mighty Chesapeake, a thorough evaluation to determine whether the citizenry, industry, commerce, government and others were doing a better job of their stewardship of our beloved estuary.

The title of our subsequent series, some 30 articles in all, pretty much sums up what we found. Heisler was still managing editor, and after reviewing our findings decided on calling the series The Chesapeake Still At Bay. How appropriate.

Much had happened, mostly bad, since the original series. There was the kepone scare in the lower Bay, the disappearance of most Bay grasses, oysters were in dramatic decline, shad were in deep trouble, the Eastern Shore was being developed at an ominous pace. Worst of all, in 1972 Tropical Storm Agnes had struck.

But some things were the same. Not much was being done to stem the degradation of the mighty Chesapeake. There was much talk of what could and should be done, and most Bay watchers were frustrated. Talk was cheap; cleaning up the Bay was expensive, and necessary remedies remained politically and economically controversial indeed.

Watermen and others urged replenishing of finfish and shellfish stocks. No real problem, some maintained. Let’s just give nature a hand.

I took those words to the acknowledged father of research of the Chesapeake, Dr. Reginald V. Truitt, then living at Stevensville not far from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Long retired from studying the Bay, yet still a keen Bay watcher at 86, he was visibly exasperated. He was incensed.

“Save the Bay by stocking things like rockfish and shad!” he muttered. The man who was responsible for closing hatcheries for yellow perch and shad many years before added, “Those fish know more about where to hatch their eggs than man. And they should know. They’ve been at it for at least tens of thousands of years.”

He summed up the Bay’s problems in this way: “Man is harvesting too much from it while introducing too many pollutants.”

On how to fix it, he added “There is no cure-all. There is a very big job to be done. Pollution and overharvesting must be curtailed if there is to be success.”

Was anybody listening? Have we faced up to the problems of the mighty Chesapeake? We’ll go into that next week as we review Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2001 “State of the Bay Report,” with a few comments of our own. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly