Along the Chesapeake, 'Heavy Footprints' Take Toll

With June bringing some of the loveliest days in creation, it's easy to feel good about Chesapeake Bay. This world is full of wonderful places to wake up to - or reach in an hour's drive.

Fifteen million people enjoy Chesapeake's privileges - with more coming every hour, U.S. EPA scientist and Baysider Kent Mountford reminded us this week. His words, combined with some of the research we did in preparing a story you'll read elsewhere in this week's paper - "Bernie's Big Day," our decade-long look at conditions on the Bay - jarred us a bit.

What we heard reminded us that it may not be wise to become too sanguine about reports of an improving Chesapeake Bay.

Bernie Fowler's Sneaker Index shows us the best we've accomplished in two decades of pushing to bring back the Bay. After letting clarity slip to a mere eight inches at the Patuxent River, we're climbing back to some of the good old days when you could see up to five feet down.

Last year's clarity missed four feet by only three and one-half inches. Early indicators from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and EPA suggest that this year might be as good - unless we get a big rain or rough waters before Sunday's wade-ins.

But on other measures, we're finding how hard it is to undo what we do every day.

All the experts agreed that too much nitrogen and phosphorus were no good for the Bay. So they made nitrogen and phosphorus reduction one of our clean-up goals, one sure way to bring back the Bay. Experts agreed that 1985 levels had to be cut back by 40 percent by the year 2000.

Now we're finding that that's a tough goal to keep. Just like any reducing diet, it takes consuming less. Science has helped us reduce a lot - up to half in Bernie Fowler's beloved river. We've stopped using phosphorus to wash our dirty clothes and to clean up other messes. We've used microbes to help make the water that comes out of our sewage treatment plants much cleaner. We've planted green buffers at water's edges.

Still, we're coming up short, so short that our 40 percent goal may not be reached in the 18 months we have until January 1, 2000. What's left is the hard work.

Mountford advised. "Working against us is this constant stream of population, and the economic and social activity behind it, from autos to paving to smoke stack emission, homes and businesses. While we're making changes in the right direction, these things work against us."

What do we have to do? we asked the scientist.

"Take out more nutrients faster ... and be very careful and efficient. We need to walk very gently on this earth, and we're all pretty heavy footed."

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VolumeVI Number 23
June 11-17, 1998
New Bay Times

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