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Volume 13, Issue 47 ~ November 24 - November 30, 2005

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

The Sorry State of Our Bay

Part 1: Faint Hopes

When we succeed, the Chesapeake Bay will be a model of restoration for other complex environmental systems worldwide.

—Reasons for Hope, annual State of the Bay assessment: Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Methinks the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 17-word wrap-up in the introduction of its State of the Bay 2006 evaluation of our Bay would have been more realistic had just one little word been changed.

Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate if the first word had been “If” rather than “When?”

In its credible annual ratings of the State of the Bay, the Foundation informs us that another year has passed with the Bay no worse than it was the previous year. Yet it also includes “Reasons for Hope.”

Methinks that’s more than a tad optimistic.

Okay, call me a pessimist, but while Chesapeake Bay Foundation finds reasons for hope, I look at the half-glass of water the other way.

It’s not half-full; it’s half-empty.

Yet I find a mite of satisfaction in the Foundation’s Reasons for Hope. If their folks with all the facts, figures and expertise can find a ray of hope, perhaps there is. But damned if I can find it.

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

Next year, I will have been around these parts for a half-century. When I arrived, a few citizens-in-the-know were already suggesting the crown jewel of our natural resources might be in trouble. Ten years later Bill Perkinson, science editor of the Evening Sun, Dean Mills, staff correspondent, and I, the Sunpapers outdoor editor, commenced work on a 12-part series The Chesapeake at Bay.

Back then, environment wasn’t a buzz word, so our work was promoted by the Evening Sun as an “illustrated report on water pollution.”

The gist of our findings nearly 40 years ago was the Bay was slowly losing the fight to keep its woes at bay. But Perk, Dean and I, though concerned, were heartened by the words of Republican Rogers C.B. Morton, then Maryland’s Eastern Shore congressman and long-time conservationist, who in our last installment said:

“To what we already know and what we are already doing, we must add a system of management which will develop total involvement of all interests represented and all levels of government — counties, cities, states and federal — for the whole basin.” I was about 40 at the time, young and patient enough to believe common sense would prevail, the citizenry would rise to the challenge.

So here I am with age 80 not far off, and in the interim I have seen a system of management develop that involves all levels of government; Chesapeake Bay Foundation becoming a potent watchdog of the Chesapeake; increasing numbers of concerned citizens and activists; so-called comprehensive management plans and many amendments to management plans.

Know what?

Despite all that we have learned in the way of what does what to degrade our beloved Chesapeake Bay, despite the countless millions of bucks we’ve spent, the Chesapeake is still not only at bay, but I dare say worse off than when Perk, Dean and I set out on an assignment from our managing editor Phil Heisler, who had told us, “There just might be something to sink your teeth in all the talk about the Bay being in trouble.

“Dig into, get the facts, talk to anyone with any connection to the Bay, then tell it like it is. If it’s true the Bay is getting as bad as they say,” he said, “the people will see that things change.”

Heisler was the smartest newspaperman I have come across in 59 years of working in journalism. But maybe he gave the people too much credit. In retrospect, methinks the people are like the manager of a baseball team that failed to make the playoffs, saying Wait till next year.

Is it reasonable to ask how many years will it be until next year? How long must we wait?

Pouring Sand Down a Rat Hole

Unlike Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I can no longer see Reasons for Hope. I’ve spent ’em all, probably the last one when this morning I turned to the editorial page of The Sun and saw the title of the lead editorial: “Shoring up the shoreline.” Thinking it might be a piece targeting the shores of the Chesapeake, I plunked the open page down in front of me at breakfast.

I quickly lost my appetite.

This editorial wasn’t about the Bay, unless one (as one should) figures time, effort and money spent to shore up Ocean City by pumping $10 million to pump offshore sand onto the beach would consume tax dollars (federal, state and local) that could be better spent on the Chesapeake.

As long-time friend the late Reese Layton — who maintained a summer home at Ocean City and was a charterboat skipper out of that port — told me many years ago, pumping sand onto OC’s beach was like pouring sand down a rat hole. It never ends, nor does the cost.

Ocean City is a barrier island. Time will see it disappear as so many other Atlantic Coast barrier islands have done. A hurricane with a high number will hasten that fate. Those high-rise condominiums, the boardwalk and the businesses are all going to be haunts for sea bass one day.

Get a storm like Katrina that rides the coast farther north rather than turn to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, and that one day could come in ’06, ’07 or any time thereafter.

We’re paying the Corps of Engineers to do for Ocean City what they did for New Orleans and much farther back, Galveston: build false security with sand that a furious ocean can wash away as we can squash a bug.

The Sun might say (as it did) “Ocean City is a tremendous economic asset for Maryland generating an estimated $248 million annually in state and federal taxes” and pay a $10 million premium every four years to ensure against a multi-billion dollar loss. But methinks that’s a gamble. Sooner or later, the sea will prevail.

Surely the day will come when the sea will also prevail in the Chesapeake. But that day is many millennia farther down the line, unless global warming has more tricks up its sleeve than we are aware of.

Yet the citizenry and its leaders appear more inclined to keep pouring sand down a rat hole, as was done with levees in New Orleans, than divert funds to the Chesapeake, where they will do more good than at the sands of a resort city that continues building on a vulnerable barrier island.

We must switch priorities, and there’s no better argument for that than reviewing Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay message, which we will do next week to see how much hope we can find in it. Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.