Volume XI, Issue 33 ~ August 14-20, 2003

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| Politics is Killing the Bay | Bay Life: Bay Life: Hale and Farewell |

Politics is Killing the Bay
Author Howard Ernst Isn’t Hysterical…But We Should Be
by Sara Ebenreck and Sandra Martin

“There are only two reasons to write a nonfiction book,” says Howard Ernst, a Maryland newcomer who’s written the most talked about Bay book in years. Chesapeake Bay Blues, early reviewers said, is “a wake-up call” and “insightful analysis of how the nation’s largest estuary fell victim to human greed, economic expansion, and pollution.” It’s ranked by Amazon.com as the number one non-fiction seller among books on the Bay.

Reason one, says the 32-year-old Naval Academy professor of political science: “You’ve discovered something new and want to share it with the world.”

Reason two: “You disagree with conventional wisdom.”

In Ernst’s case, the two reasons merge. He’s made some bold, new conclusions and in doing so, he’s bucking the conventional wisdom espoused by the conglomeration of interests involved in the Bay restoration effort.

Ernst has discovered what no one else seems to have noticed. That effort — one that’s touted as a model for the nation and for the world — “is just not working!”

Cracking Illusions
Since Chesapeake Bay Blues hit the streets this summer, it’s been harder not to notice. In his book and in speeches throughout the region, Ernst drills his audience with facts and questions as if he’s a Navy captain talking to a just-recruited crew needing to shape up for tough action.

Record-low oyster harvests. A crab population teetering on the verge of collapse. Contaminants in every fish tested by the Maryland Department of Environment. A billion and a half pounds of chicken manure produced on the Eastern Shore and spread on fields before leaking into our waterways.

“Bacterial levels on most beaches are so high that they ought to be closed,” he tells the Almost 7:30 Friday Morning Democratic Breakfast Club in Annapolis.

“I’m a swimmer …” begins one questioner.

“I hope you haven’t got any open sores,” Ernst retorts.

And the volley goes on.

Nutrient pollution and low oxygen levels plague the Bay. The Bay and most of its tributaries are listed by the EPA as “impaired bodies of water.” The Chesapeake Bay Foundation does a yearly score, rating the water’s health on a score of 0 to 100. It’s been hovering around 27 — not a passing score on any exam.

“If a student came to me and said, ‘I know I failed the test, but I studied really hard,’ you know what I’d say?” Ernst asks.

In the words of Bill Burton, if you know the answer, it’s not a question.

But it’s not students the professor is talking to in Chesapeake Bay Blues. It’s the powers-that-be of Bay recovery.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation, he says, must “advocate or abdicate.”

Bureaucrats, he says, “are the used car salesmen of the Bay.”

Gov. Robert Ehrlich, he says “has made a series of disastrous choices for the Bay. Why was this guy elected?”

“Politics,” concludes Howard Ernst, “is killing the Bay.”

Excuse, Excuses
Allowing the dastardly deed is a triumvirate of ills Ernst names the Grand Illusion, the Cult of Science and the Cult of Courtesy.

Here’s how the three work: When we tell one another that we have a great program, we begin to believe it. As we announce numbers and herald study results, we feel we’ve already done something important. Above all, we’re nice guys, working cooperatively, all of us together for a common cause.

A little more time and a little more money, and still another study won’t save the Bay, Ernst warns. The sad fact is that “we’re not making progress but losing ground in an uphill battle.”

That it hasn’t been won by polite requests should be no surprise because, says Ernst, “restoration is a continuous struggle to change human behavior. To save the Bay, you’ve got to get people to take actions they otherwise would not — and only government can do that.”

What Went Wrong?
You’ve got to grasp the science of politics to understand how practical politics got its stranglehold on the Bay. It also helps to be an outsider, like Ernst, who hasn’t bought into the common wisdom. Because it’s not just Ehrlich at fault — though Ernst sees no help in the governor’s plans to disband the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, to bring alien oysters into the Bay and to let farmers decide for themselves how to best manage their contribution of Bay-killing pollution. The death of the Bay is a conspiracy of long standing that even includes Bay lovers like us.

Here’s how Ernst says politics is killing the Bay.

Political action begins when bad news provokes public outcry. There’s been a Bayful of bad news to choose from in the 20 years. Today’s hot buttons are the steady decline of blue crabs and farm pollution. But any plan of action has to first prove that it won’t really hurt the Bay economy because money-making is the life-blood of American culture. Better yet, political action should help Bay business toward prosperity. That’s the first choke hold.

As a political idea rises, lobbyists attack it. Consider, Ernst says, that in 1998 industries that would be affected by environmental regulations gave $4.5 million to campaigns in Maryland and $2 million in Virginia. Environmental groups gave $5,396 in Maryland and nothing in Virginia. Lawmakers, he says, can’t ignore those who’ve put dollars in their campaigns, which is the second choke hold.

The third choke hold is applied by lawmakers wrestling with each other. Bay Country includes 1,650 local governments and four major cities: Baltimore Norfolk, Richmond and Washington, D.C. To gain needed tax revenue, each unit of government wants to become ever-more attractive to industry and development.

And the fourth choke hold?

After all the debating and consulting, the political process squeezes a bit harder. Negotiations might subtract a quarter-inch from the size of crabs you can catch. Or approve incentives and applaud the chicken industry for starting to make garden fertilizer pellets out of a small portion of its chicken manure.

While the Bay lies dying, the small solutions that survive the political process can’t do enough to revive it. But that’s a secret best kept from Bay-loving citizens like you and me.

So lawmakers call for a press conference to trumpet another million dollars spent here or spent there — and, presto, Bay restoration is working.

Meanwhile, environmental groups and concerned citizens mostly work in other fields than politics. We citizens plant sea-grass up and down the Bay, drop old oyster shells overboard to make reefs, create gardens to catch storm runoff and measure river water quality. Environmental groups educate people.

Good work, Ernst allows, damning with faint praise an effort that’s not nearly enough to make a difference. “Doing something less than necessary can,” he cautions, “be worse than doing nothing.”

Led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Bay’s environmental community has not exactly taken off like George W. Bush after Saddam Hussein. Instead, Ernst says, the best friends of the environment have practiced “a strategy of appeasement. They haven’t realized that this is war.”

If you want to save the Bay, this professor says you’re going to have to play politics.

Getting It Right
“Pay the $20 and read my book. There’s a whole chapter on it,” laughs Ernst when a Friday Morning Democrat asks what we ought to be doing. Twenty bucks is a deal, he notes. The advertised price on the 205-page paperback published by Rowman & Littlefield in Lanham is $22.95.

But if you’re listening, Ernst will tell you for free. Because in print or in person, he’s not, he says, the kind of guy who’s glad to tell you what’s wrong but ignores how to fix it.

Saving the Bay starts with Bay-wide regulation.

“The crab isn’t a Maryland issue or a Virginia issue, it’s a Bay issue,” Ernst says, and that’s true of the every creature that lives and breaths in our 200-mile-long estuary that draws its waters from six states. The founder of Bay restoration, Gene Cronin, said the same thing 20 years ago. The regional span of Bay restoration efforts still gets much praise. Ernst reports that it’s fragmentary instead of regional and advisory instead of regulatory.

From government, Ernst says, we need laws that “make certain that the few do not destroy the Chesapeake Bay for all of us.”

What has clearly had effect, he says, are “command and control actions” like critical areas protection and the rockfish and shad moratoriums. “Consider Rachel Carson,” he advises. “She didn’t call for voluntary cooperation to get DDT off the shelves. She called for banning it. We need that same approach.”

From the environmental community, Ernst says, we need a new, reinvigorated, gloves-off approach. “We need paid environmental lobbyists and strong issue advertisements in the press,” he says. “We need to hold politicians accountable and not be scared to go for lawsuits when environmental laws and regulations aren’t being enforced.”

Ernst isn’t scared to name names. It’s the wealthy, well-respected Chesapeake Bay Foundation he challenges to “advocate or abdicate.”

Will Baker, president of Bay Foundation, told Bay Weekly that Ernst didn’t understand that the Foundation can lobby without “hired guns.”

“CBF was voted the most effective lobbying group in Virginia one year by the legislators themselves,” Baker countered.

Ernst gives more credit to the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, which issues environmental score-cards for Maryland politicians and lists environmental impacts of the first 100 days of the Ehrlich administration (see www.mdlcv.org). The League’s Political Action Committee helps fund good candidates in their runs for office, Ernst says.

But compared to the Bay Foundation’s hundred-plus employees, the League is tackling political action with three full-time staffers and volunteers.

“If [executive director] Sue Brown and the League of Conservation Voters got $22 million, like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation does, it would change the political culture of Bay restoration in a year,” Ernst says.

For money, Ernst recommends an initiative he calls One Percent for the Bay.

Money hasn’t saved the Bay, but the Bay can’t be saved without money. The estimate to reach 2010 goals has ballooned to $19.5 billion, which, Ernst says, leaves us with a $12 billion deficit. One Percent for the Bay — that’s one percent of all revenues in Maryland and Virginia — would keep money coming “till the end of time.”

How to get that one percent? Ernst suggests ballot initiatives, which rise from the grassroots, bypass politicians and, on environmental issues only, he says, have a “70 to 80 percent” success record across the country.

To see this image larger, click on it.
graphic by Christine Jamison, courtesy of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Right On!
“Calm down, Professor Ernst!”

He’s treated as an alarmist, says Ernst, by much of the Bay restoration establishment, which rejects his conclusion that “they’ve done an abysmally poor job while keeping thousands of people busy and politicians smug.”

But on his side he’s got Bernie Fowler. The former Maryland senator — the icon who leads the full-dress Patuxent River wade-in every June — has read Chesapeake Bay Blues and likes what Ernst is saying. Back in the 1970s, Fowler knew he wasn’t going to get a solution by just asking the sewage plants that were fouling the Patuxent River to clean the flow a bit. He and other activists went to federal court to prove that the state water quality plan didn’t protect the Patuxent from that sewage effluent. The judge agreed and demanded new water quality standards. For a while, the water in that river improved.

“Now we’re being overwhelmed by growth,” Fowler says. “The piles and piles of paper reports we’ve produced don’t mean we’re cleaning up the Bay. I’m impatient, because right now it’s going backwards.”

Fowler slows down to add an example. “My son and I were fishing out off Ridge, Maryland,” he says “We kept pulling in rockfish with lesions on their sides.” Sick fish; sick waters.

Testing the Professor
Want a test for Ernst’s ideas? Watch what starts (or doesn’t start) happening about the nutrient pollution that’s causing the largest area of low oxygen ever recorded in the Bay. Buy Ernst’s book, read it and begin watching to see who’s got ideas and who’s doing a choke hold on action.

If you think he’s right, get political.

Want to reach Ernst? Ernst@usna.edu • 410/293-6872 • www.chesapeakebayblues.com.

About Sara Ebenreck:
A former philosophy teacher at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, she is project director for Chestory: The Center for the Chesapeake Story.

Prof. Ernst’s Pop Quiz

Question: Why did Maryland watermen receive $1.2 million in disaster relief this summer while the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee died for a $45,000 lack of funding?

Answer: Watermen are organized and politically active.

Deeper Blues

To larger image, click on it.
This month EPA Chesapeake Bay Program documented the largest area of low oxygen ever recorded in the Bay: a not quite “dead zone” of 250 square miles reaching from the Patapsco River near Baltimore 100 miles south to the York River in Virginia. Oxygen is so low that fish are dying and crabs are scrambling up out of the water in search of oxygen.

What is a dead zone?
A section of water where species cannot survive because of low dissolved oxygen levels. These animals, in a sense, cannot breathe.

Is the Chesapeake a dead zone?
No. But the Bay does have large pockets of low dissolved oxygen levels, called hypoxic zones, where algae and other pests consume more oxygen than is produced. These pockets are areas where the lives of many animals, including clams and worms, are stressed.

What happens to cause these pockets?
Nutrients — mostly nitrogen and phosphorous — pollute the Chesapeake via roof, lawn, farm and street runoff.

How bad off is the Bay?
Data from the Chesapeake Bay Program gathered between July 7 and July 9, 2003, show approximately 40 percent of the Bay’s body had dissolved oxygen levels that have amounted to the largest number of low oxygen events in 18 years. The dissolved oxygen is measured in milligrams of oxygen per litre of water; The lower the number, the worse the pollution.

High nutrient pollution and low oxygen areas vary up and down the Bay — from no oxygen at 0.0 mg/L where the Patuxent, Potomac and Rappahannock rivers enter the Bay to healthier water at 5.0 mg/L where the Susquehanna and James rivers enter.

See problem areas in the Chesapeake graphed in birds-eye and cross-section views at www.chesapeakebay.net/lowdo2003.htm.

Why is the problem worse in 2003?
This summer’s steady, heavy rains and below-average temperatures have fed the low oxygen levels in deeper parts of the Bay.

How does excess rain harm the Bay?
As the runoff from land surrounding the Bay increases, nutrients pile up quicker and thicker in the water. Through last month, river flow into the Bay was 19.1 trillion gallons of water. This is a 10.6 trillion gallon increase from the 8.5 trillion gallons over the same period of time in 2002.

How are the Bay’s creatures affected?
Each animal in the Bay’s waters requires a minimum amount of oxygen to survive. When blue crabs fall short of this minimum of 3mg/L, the oxygen-deprived crustaceans crawl onto land in search of air. This desperate search is called a “crab jubilee.” Other animals, like the rockfish, may be forced out of a highly stressful low-oxygen habitat. This causes inhabitable areas to be more competitive and populated. If the fish aren’t evicted from their homes, their end is untimely death.

— Stephanie Chizik

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Last updated August 14, 2003 @ 1:17am