Volume 12, Issue 33 ~ August 12 -18, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

The New Math of Bay Restoration Doesn’t Add Up

Seems that we can’t get one thing in the ecosystem in balance before another goes out of whack.
—MSSA president Bill Windley from that big Bay fishing organization’s newsletter.

Amen, Bill.
For most Bay watchers, that’s hitting the nail dead center. We’re not scientists, so in many respects we have to take the word of those who study and manage the Chesapeake — though at times we harbor doubts.

In these days, there are so many complexities in all the aspects of ecological management. It certainly isn’t like it was in the good old days. Figuring what’s right and what isn’t is akin to trying to understand what makes a nuclear bomb tick.

It wasn’t always like that, not in my lifetime. Or so we thought.

Back on the Battenkill, 2+2 = 4
When I was a kid in Vermont, the famed crystal clear Battenkill was my ‘bay.’ It was the biggest waterway that I and many others knew or cared about.

If, on the orders of elected town selectmen, road crews straightened a sharp curve in the road along the Battenkill, we watched and worried. Construction silt posed short-term woes; longer lasting problems could be what the change meant in the flow of the ‘Kill.

If a family built an outhouse too close to the banks — and sometimes that would be squeezing things, seeing there wasn’t always much space between the road on both sides of the water — we had great concerns, though no laws prohibited such placement at the time.

The fabled trout of the Battenkill were our barometer of water quality in those times when things were so much more simple. If trout catches diminished or vanished where changes came about — and not infrequently they did — we realized a mistake had been made.

The fish of the Battenkill were our miners’ canaries. We knew what was good (very seldom) or bad (much more often) by the reaction of trout. Back in the days when words like environment or ecology weren’t spoken much, conservation was the byword of protection of our natural resources. We learned via our mistakes. Or those of our neighbors and town government.

photo by Bill Burton
Skip Zinck prepares to dive in near Thomas Point to check underwater Bay visibility.
Bay Figuring Is Out of WhackToday, I live no longer on the Battenkill but practically on the shores of the Chesapeake up here in North County on Stoney Creek, a short cast from the Patapsco and ultimately the Chesapeake. Natural resources scientists and managers are more sophisticated. And the situations they face are much more complex.

Now we the observers (not really the right word because most of us are more involved to various degrees) are left out of the loop because we don’t understand all of the ramifications. Worse still, we’re too often out of the loop when it comes to input in corrective measures whether by vote, gripe or demand.

I am among those bewildered by the difference between what I see — my gut feeling — and what those who should know tell me. We’re told that restoration of the Chesapeake might not be fully on track, but headway is being made — though to what degree depends on who’s doing the talking. Put them all together, and methinks they don’t jibe.

Bill Windley’s words at the head of this column refer to sea trout, but they pretty much sum up environmental issues in the Chesapeake — and elsewhere. Soon as something gets in balance, something else goes out of whack.

And we’re always playing catch-up.

We’re bystanders for the most part, even those among us who are activists. We push and prod, but we don’t make the ultimate decisions. We cheer when we hear such news as Maryland watermen considering suing the EPA to force it to take more aggressive action to reduce pollution. But will even litigation change the attitudes of those doing the polluting? We’ve all seen how much good laws do without the support and adherence of the citizenry.

We read of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s proposal for a “user fee” — a penny-a-pound tax on meat and dairy products to generate about $25 million a year to help clean up the Bay. But how much would that do to curtail the impact of manure, from cattle and poultry, entering our Bay?

Farmers use the manure to fertilize their fields. It boosts production, it’s relatively inexpensive, and it gets rid of a waste product. Is the public willing to spend more — and not on just the user fee — if farmers have to charge more for their crops? And where does the unused manure go? Do we build mountains from it?

We rant and rave about insufficiently treated sewage from municipal plants, but is the funding available to bring them up to par? Meanwhile, still on many boats — and they count in the tens of thousands — we dump sewage — mostly raw — and gray water directly into the Chesapeake. Why not? Communities do it.

We watch development continue virtually unabated; we see increasing incidences of Bay dead zones so lacking in oxygen that fish have to leave. Those in nets or traps die, as does other aquatic life lacking mobility.

Are Bay grasses making a comeback? Some say yes; others say no. Who’s right? We do know Bay grasses need sunlight and clear water. Recently, I was aboard the boat of Skip and Lisa Zinck when at Thomas Point they decided to do some scuba diving to check visibility on the floor of the Bay. And not just the visibility of artificial baits to fish.

Know what? It hadn’t rained in days, but on the bottom in about 20 feet of water, visibility was only two to five feet. How can vegetation be spawned under such conditions? We hear the Magothy’s visibility is being improved dramatically by a dark, false (and harmless) mussel in abundance. But what about the Bay itself, where our chief cleansers, the oyster and menhaden, are in more than dramatic decline?

Yes, many of us are bewildered by all that’s going on. But our gut feeling remains negative. And there are times when there is more to a gut feeling than a hunch. Enough said …

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