Volume XI, Issue 46 ~ November 13-19, 2003

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Dock of the Bay

Our Ailing Bay Takes a Turn for the Worse in 2003
We’ve got the way, but not will, to do better, Bay Foundation says

“The Bay is still dying,” announced Will Baker, president of Chesapeake Bay Foundation in reporting 2003’s sad state of the Chesapeake.
Here’s the good news: Had Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker discounted his staff’s advice and backed off St. John’s College dock into College Creek, he’d have come up smelling almost like roses.

Here’s the bad news: Most anyplace else in the Bay, the smooth-talking, red-headed leader of the Chesapeake’s best heeled advocacy group would have popped up not only wet, cold and embarrassed but also smelling like skunk cabbage.

For College Creek — where Baker reported on the state of the Bay in the year 2003 — is about as good as it gets. With an old bulkhead yanked out, banks eased into a gradual slope and native grasses replanted, the shoreline there is looking like its old self — before humans girded it for our good rather than the good of the Bay.

Projects like College Creek’s made shoreline restoration one of the few bright spots amidst a lineup of blights on the Bay. On 13 indicators that Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientists use to measure the health of its habitat and fisheries and the severity of its pollution, only one reached the sustainable ideal.

Thus, pronounced Baker, “The Bay is still dying — despite 20 years of work by federal and state governments.”

Twenty years ago, Bay states, the District of Columbia and an alphabet of federal agencies joined in an unmatched cooperative effort to save the Bay from a rising tide of degradation. In 1983, nobody thought living up to the Chesapeake Bay Agreement would be easy. But everybody expected that by now, we’d have turned that tide.

Instead, it’s getting worse — which says something about our efforts as well as about the Bay.

“One hundred is the historic ideal Captain John Smith would have seen when he sailed up the Bay 400 years ago,” said Baker, explaining the index, which the Foundation devised six years ago to measure Bay health.

click on chart to see it larger!
This year’s score is 27, one point worse than last year, which was already bad enough. Could we be on a slippery slope back to 1983, when Bay health slipped to its nadir, a miserable 23?

We could, but Baker doesn’t linger there. Instead, he used this inauspicious 20-year anniversary to lob a little blame, to rally the troops and to jump-start the failing effort.

“We’ll never reach 100 percent, but 70 seems possible,” he predicted — though not tomorrow.

At 70, we’d have saved the Bay. Today, only one indicator — rockfish — has climbed that high. Their score of 75 is due at least in part to human intervention, for in the mid 1980s all rockfishing was banned for five years. Only then, without humans as predators, the Bay’s signature fish rebounded.

Baker doesn’t predict that we’ll reach so high for all 13 indicators until 2050.

But within our lifetimes — indeed, within fewer years than we’ve already been laboring — Baker thinks we can do better.

“By 2010, we can reach 40,” he said — but it will be a stretch. Today, only two of the Foundation’s 13 indicators have risen above 40: forested buffers at 55 and wetlands at 42.

By 2020, he hopes we can reach 50.

And now he’s going to tell us how.

The Bay’s ill health has many causes, but one big one we have the know-how to change: nitrogen. Nitrogen is a naturally occurring element that makes up four-fifths of the volume of Earth’s atmosphere. But in human hands it’s also a fertilizer and waste product, and in that guise nitrogen runoff is killing the Bay.

click on the chart to see it larger!
Reducing the flow of nitrogen by 110 million pounds, Baker said, is the way to a sustainable Bay. That’s in the long term.

In the short term — that’s 2010 — 40 million pounds of that load could be stopped by better wastewater treatment. One thing we’ve learned since the original Chesapeake Bay Agreement is how to treat our sewage — which watershed-wide is processed by 300 treatment plants that together release 1.5 million gallons of treated wastewater into the Bay.

Cutting back this release of nitrogen-heavy waste is a technique called biological nutrient reduction, and we’ve been getting better and better at it since scientist Clifford Randall of Virginia Tech laid the foundation back in the 1980s. The principle is that if you loose a mess of bacteria on your treatment ponds, under the right circumstances they’ll consume that Bay-killing nitrogen, releasing it as a harmless gas. About half the volume of wasewater processed in the watershed is cleansed by biological nutrient reduction to cut that bad old nitrogen down to about eight parts per million.

The technology has since advanced to where nitrogen can be cut to three to five parts per million. But only 10 treatment plants in the whole watershed have upgraded to that standard.

That’s in part because state-of-the-art biological nutrient reduction is not cheap. Maryland estimates $5 to $20 per household according to Baker. Multiply that range by Maryland’s 1,980,859 households, and you’re talking big money in one state alone.

To transform all those other sewage treatment plants, Baker said, government must make nitrogen removal legally mandatory. To move government, the new administrator of the EPA, former Utah governor Michael Leavitt, would have to “exercise his authority to force states to enforce the Clean Water Act.” To persuade President George W. Bush to share costs for the upgrades, Baker said the whole Bay Executive Committee — Leavitt plus D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia — should go calling on the White House.

But — and here, said Baker, is the rub — government is the weak link in Bay restoration. “The politics of postponement is killing the Bay,” he charged. “The region’s governments … are putting off till next year important steps that should be made today.”

Aye, there’s the rub.


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Tables Turned
Grading the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

photo by Sara Ebenreck
On the day Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued its report card on Bay health, muckraking Naval Academy political science professor Howard Ernst issued his report on the state of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Ernst took the Foundation to task in his book Chesapeake Bay Blues.

Now, the radical professor says the Foundation is cleaning up its act.

“Chesapeake Bay Foundation hasn’t changed what they do, but they’ve increased the volume — which is nice but not enough,” Ernst told Bay Weekly.

On the plus side, Ernst gives the mighty Foundation credit for “a good job” in advertising this summer’s Dead Zone and having “the guts” to criticize the overseer of the Bay restoration effort, the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program. Also earning his praise is Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual State of the Bay report.

“They’re wonderful at understanding what’s wrong and needs to be done, but…” says Ernst, “they don’t seem to understand why political action isn’t happening.”

What the Foundation hasn’t done, by Ernst’s reckoning is “address their organizational structure, which severely limits their ability to be policially influential. They continue to hide behind the tax status they’ve chosen, which limits them from fully engaging in the political process.”

How would Professor Ernst grade the Foundation?

“I’d give them a C-, and that’s an improvement from a flat F,” said the self-styled “easy grader.”


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Growing St. Leonard
A community with a past tries for a future

Can a crossroads village surrounded by a sprawl of housing developments grow into a thriving community? As Dr. Seuss almost said, “If such a thing could be, it certainly should be.”

In the Calvert County village of St. Leonard, a “Vision Group” is pushing hard for that goal.

The St. Leonard Vision Group came together in April, 2002, in response to a newspaper announcement of a meeting “to discuss the future of St. Leonard.” Today, the volunteers have a long list of plans — and a lot of needs.

This 1796 map shows St. Leonard
near the bottom.

Bay Weekly sat in at their November 10 meeting to see where their plans headed.

The immediate future rests in the hands of the Community Spirit Committee. First, they’ve promised to raise spirits with a Holiday Sing starting at 4:30pm Sunday, December 7, at the historic Polling House on St. Leonard’s Road. Next, the new central round-about traffic circle at the crossroads will be inaugurated Tuesday, December 16, with a Streetscape Ribbon Cutting. A school chorus will entertain, town elders will arrive in limos, and Calvert County commissioners will help St. Leonard celebrate.

By March, 2004 — early in Calvert County’s 350th-year celebration — St. Leonard will also have an official past, according to the book committee’s Fred Dellinger. The book-length St. Leonard Heritage Story is a central part of the Vision Group’s consciousness-raising, telling the longer-than-you’d-expect story of St. Leonard.

English settlement of the St. Leonard Creek Hundred, after which the town is named, followed within a decade of the 1634 landing of the Ark and the Dove in St. Mary’s City. St. Leonard’s Towne was established at the head of the creek in 1709 and became a central shipping port for tobacco, with its own inspection station.

But in 1814, as the British fleet advanced up the Patuxent River, intent on burning the White House, they slowed down enough to fight off an American attack from the mouth of St. Leonard’s Creek, and they then burned St. Leonard’s Towne to the ground. The old Towne never recovered. Slowly, as road traffic replaced waterway travel early in the 20th century, the crossroads town grew. The town name moved across the north-south road and settled down.

St. Leonard’s Towne/St. Leonard had its own heroes and heroines. Among public ones is Thomas Johnson of St. Leonard’s Towne, who became the first governor of Maryland. U.S. Chief Justice Roger Taney, from St. Leonard’s Towne, held the Bible for the swearing-in of Abraham Lincoln. Before Camp David existed, Congressman Tom Parren used to bring President Taft down to his St. Leonard Windmill Farm for relaxation.

The heritage book, it’s hoped, will help newcomers to the area grasp its history; for old-timers, it will affirm a sense of pride and joy in their place.

So much for plans; now onto needs. They’re looking for someone to help build their website on which you can track what happens next … for a volunteer to help with the final design of the book … for local folk and businesses to provide food, drinks and other support for the community events. They’d like to get a youth center underway and even begin an annual St. Leonard Festival.

If you want to volunteer, call organizer Marie Andrews at 410/586-2068 or mail a note to St. Leonard Vision Group, P.O. Box 70, St. Leonard, MD 20685.

—Sara Ebenreck

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Earth Journal ~ Between Seasons
by M.L. Faunce

“I’d like to come back as M.L.’s dog,” a friend of a friend said, a compliment, I suppose, for the well-traveled little pup in my life.

Watching this sweet dog lazily stretched out on a warm Indian summer day on a porch step in my yard, I couldn’t help but think maybe we all should come back as some good dog owner’s pet — this time of year anyway.

I spied her watching intently as leaves floated from tree to ground, following each falling leaf as if it were the first, each time surprised, her twitching ears belying the peaceful body.

So it should be with us on this Indian summer day with Halloween’s wondrous night now history for another year: carved pumpkins with their receding, puckering jaws, trails of candy squished by so many scampering costumed feet, the last remnants of the hallowed night.

No, now we’ll rush pell-mell to the next seasonal affair on our calendars, marching to the drum of merchants and merchandise toward another Hallmark holiday even before the present one is over.

Study the pet in your life observing nature’s show outside your window — leaves slip-sliding away, glorious color draining from our autumn world — a show so grand it should not to be missed. Observe the cat, all patience, in no hurry to be anywhere, waiting only for the chance to swat big, fat black flies that buzz between window and screens these days, seeking warmth but getting more than bargained for.

Taking the cue from my own pup, I stretched out on my deck that night, aware that we’re living on borrowed time, a warm evening that can’t be banked, must be spent now or else lost. Soon, I noticed streaks of light in the darkened sky and remembered the forecast for aurora, dancing lights seen most often in the skies of more northern lands.

When the streaks began to move, I leashed up my pup and headed for the shoreline of the Bay to get a better view.

Along the way, the Pied Piper in me shouted the news to neighbors just settling in for an after-dinner schnapps on their front porch. Not long after, three adults and two excited kids piled out of their car to the park along the Bay, they too cupping their hands to shield out the streetlight for a better view of the rare phenomenon. With ooos and ahhhs, we all watched in wonder until neighbor Mike noticed the regularity of the streaking lights and counted the intervals. “A searchlight,” was his conclusion, and with no aurora, he returned to the car.

But by that time, neighbor Warren and his youngsters had noticed the moon in an early phase of a partial eclipse, which I later learned was predicted. When I pointed out Mars, we began to notice all the wonders of a warm night in autumn beneath a cover of stars: The smooth ripple of the tide coming in bathed in moonlight. The softness of the air. The twinkling lights cast across Herring Bay from Holland Point, like some exotic seaport town burning bright.

It was a moment, between holidays, when the world and we stood still for a little while, observing nature with the patience of a cat, the wonder of a dog. As if we had come back to life in some other form.

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Way Downstream…

In Annapolis, the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network last week announced four new Bay Gateways — one of them the 3,000-acre Parkers Creek Watershed Nature Preserve in Calvert County. Also named were the Patapsco Valley State Park; the B&A Trail; and the Great Bridge Lock Park in Virginia. That brings to 127 the number of parks, refuges, ports, museums and trails in the Gateways Network, which is aimed at giving people a roadmap to better enjoy the Chesapeake…

In Virginia, the Potomac River is setting a record for futility this oyster season. “This is truly historic — the fact that there is zero harvest,” Potomac River Fisheries Commission head Kirby Carpenter told the Fredericksburg Freelance-Star one month into a six-month season. Severe oxygen problems along with disease and overharvesting made for the grim report…

Our Creature Feature comes from Florida, where there’s new hope in the Conch Republic with the opening last week of the first-of-its-kind Key West Conch Baby Farm. Fishing for the chewy delicacies in the horn-shaped shells has been prohibited in the U.S. since 1986, after they became all but non-existent in Florida waters.

They became even rarer last month when Honduras and the Dominican Republic agreed to stop exporting them to the U.S. The conch hatchery plans initially to release 5,000 of the babies into Florida waters each year.

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© COPYRIGHT 2003 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated November 13, 2003 @ 2:28am.