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Volume 15, Issue 49 ~ December 6 - December 12, 2007


Bay Report Card a Failing Exercise?

It was hardly a stop-the-presses moment this week when the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released its annual State of the Bay report.

The grades: F for nitrogen pollution, oxygen content, oysters, shad, underwater grasses and water clarity. For resource lands and toxics, D; for phosphorus pollution, D-.

For wetlands, C+ and crabs, C. Forest buffers B+; and rockfish A+.

Kids bringing home such a miserable report card would be assigned to their rooms without cell phones and Internet. Their i-Pods would be stuffed into the junk drawer. Like troubled kids, Bay progress forever disappoints. Beyond the Bay’s grade, we noted an effort to size up the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for its annual exercise. The hard-grading professor and stern lecturer was Howard Ernst, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Ernst is the author of the 2003 book, Chesapeake Bay Blues, which traced the degradation of the Bay and the movement to restore it. He blames failures on the political process and argues, among other things, that environmental politics in Maryland have become too institutionalized to produce dividends.

He was quoted this week in The Capital dismissing the Bay Foundation’s report. “The seasons change, the story repeats itself. Our children grow another year older, same story.”

In his view, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation needs to take a more political approach to improve the news it brings us. That would include using its enviable resources to be more aggressive about environmental policy and backing pro-Bay candidates at election time.

The Foundation, which has a $20.8 million budget, has opened itself to critics such as Ernst by shying away from land-use battles waged by local citizens’ groups. The foundation also has raised eyebrows by aligning itself with farmers, who resist anything but voluntary controls in managing runoff. In the Foundation’s way of thinking, well-managed farmland is a better deal for the Bay than farmland in the hands of developers.

It’s hard to argue that environmental politics in Maryland haven’t been watered down. In our General Assembly, you can get away with wearing a Save the Bay sticker on your bumper and then voting against pro-Bay legislation.

These State of the Bay reports may depress us, but we wouldn’t want to see them end. Hopefully, those F’s and D’s can still rouse people to action while shaming our political leaders.

Gov. Martin O’Malley responded to what he called “this honest though bleak snapshot,” saying: “With the alignment of political leadership, public will, and good science, we now have an opportunity and responsibility to turn back a decline in the Bay’s health that was 60 years in the making.” We’ll see.

Like rock ’n’ roll, the power of any message lies in its repetition. Too bad that the 2007 report card reminds us how our perennial failures keep repeating themselves.

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