Volume 12, Issue 6 ~ February 5-11, 2004

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Carr~Tunes by Steve Carr

Our Dying Bay Needs Treatment, Not Research

The Chesapeake Bay is dying, pure and simple. But rather than whispering doctors huddled around the silent patient on life support, we’ve got smiling, can-do scientists busily studying the downward spiral in mind-numbing detail.

“Yep, we know she’s dying. And we know why she’s dying. Heck, we even know what it would take to bring her back to life.” Yet we persevere with the endless studies.

This summer the Severn River, where I live, was gasping for air. The Severn mirrors the rest of the Bay. So there are lessons to be learned here.

For weeks on end, there was so little oxygen that fish flopped on the murky surface of the river, gasping for air and doing barrel rolls as they dodged the parade of power boats.

Algal blooms, red tides, mahogany tides and more covered the Severn after every major rain, which was just about every week during 2003, Maryland’s wettest year on record. These carpets of algae spread across the river like a giant oil slick, absorbing sunlight like a sponge and bursting with life, only to sink to the bottom where they decompose and steal all the oxygen from the water.

By July, it wasn’t only the Severn. Monitoring buoys from one end of the Bay to the other tracked the mother of all dead zones, spreading down the main stem and wiping away life in its path.

Our Bay had become a Stephen King horror story, with nitrogen from our lawns and failing sewer treatment plants turned back on us like a hungry monster killing marine life large and small.

It’s an insidious monster as well as a deadly one. To the untrained eye, the Bay looked okay. Sure, on a calm windless day, the stink of rotting fish was apt to grab your attention. But as long as we can sail or put the ol’ Chris Craft up on plane and motor along, we don’t notice that there is no oxygen in the water.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Every public information survey over the last two decades has concluded that we all love the Bay. Regardless of where people live or what their background, they uniformly say we aren’t doing enough to preserve and protect her rich beauty and diversity. But the sad reality is this: There is a huge disconnect between our love for the Bay and our willingness to sacrifice on her behalf. We want more roads, big-box malls, greener lawns, piers and hardened shorelines along our waterfronts — and the unbridled right to build as close to the water as we can possibly get. I guess our actions speak louder than our words.

Meanwhile, the politicians are quick to realize that even though everyone loves the Bay, most people don’t want to be inconvenienced by its cleanup. We want to catch and eat lots of crabs and stripers. We want good water quality. We want to play on the Bay in our boats. But we don’t want to pay higher taxes to upgrade the broken sewer plants. We don’t want to buy all those expensive trees that should be planted around the farm fields that line our rivers and creeks. We don’t want any more government regulations. In short, we don’t want anyone telling us what to do or how to live our lives.

Of course we want to save the Bay.

Caught in a Schizophrenic Loop
The folks who run the Chesapeake Bay Program believe the Bay will be saved if we can learn more about what makes it tick. In their dogged pursuit of knowledge, they have conducted enough studies over the course of the last quarter-century to cover a large parking lot in a pile of paper five feet high. Our tax dollars have bought us a tremendous repository of ideas, but real action has been in woefully short supply.

The Save-the-Bay network is set up to fail. Take the federal Bay Program itself. The people who administer the show are fine, caring individuals. They are experienced professionals trying their best to fathom a very complex ecosystem. Try as they might, they’re frustrated by the politics of this arrangement.

Pennsylvania is the biggest contributor to the demise of the Bay from farm runoff down the Susquehanna River. The people of Pennsylvania technically live in the watershed, but most folks in that state rarely see Chesapeake Bay. The District of Columbia’s portion of the Bay is mostly urban, and Maryland’s is increasingly following suit. Virginia is predominantly rural; anyway, Virginians don’t cotton to most environmental laws. In addition, these jurisdictions are in economic competition. For all these reasons, it’s nearly impossible to get them to pull together.

We seem to be in a schizophrenic loop where the Bay drifts silently into a coma as we all wring our hands. It’s much easier for everyone to just keep studying the problem and issuing reports each year. That’s the safe approach. It doesn’t ruffle feathers. Then again, it doesn’t improve the health of the Bay, either.

I am forever amazed at the lengths Bay-saving people go to avoid making hard decisions. Sometimes it borders on the surreal. One of the latest bright ideas is to initiate a jazzy TV ad campaign in the Washington area. The goal of this mass-market media campaign is to sell the Bay to folks who evidently don’t know it’s out there. The Bay Program is kicking in $400,000, along with another $200,000 from Virginia and another $20,000 from the District of Columbia.

Maryland, thank goodness, recognized the waste of money and refused to pony up for a strategy even more ridiculous than another study. This one silly idea could be the poster child for all the wasted time and effort that has been put into restoring the Bay over the last 20 years.

Time to Pull the Plug on Studies
The Bay is so darn big, and the pollution impacts are so large and all encompassing, that if we were to snap our fingers today and stop all the nitrogen and sediment from running into the Bay from every river, creek and stream, we wouldn’t see a noticeable change in water quality for years. That, friends and neighbors, is a pretty scary thought. The residual nitrates in the soil, the ancestral sediments already in the system, will keep flushing into the Bay for years — even if we suddenly come out of our sleepwalking routine. I bet that little nugget doesn’t make it into the fancy new TV ad campaign.

Yet the daunting nature of the task should not give us pause. Rather, it should be a loud wake-up call. It’s time to get down to business. Fix the sewer treatment plants. Start right now. This minute.

Start planting forests around every farm from Pennsylvania to Delmarva. Help volunteers like the Weems Creek Conservancy get down and dirty planting Bay grasses. Fund old towns like Annapolis in retrofitting their storm drains.

It’s not too late. But it’s going to take us many, many years to get the Bay back on its feet. Every second wasted on studies and media blitzes is time we could have been doing something that mattered.

The Chesapeake Bay is indeed a national treasure, every bit as important to this country and the planet as the Everglades or the Pacific Northwest. We deserve lots more money from the federal government to save this natural wonder, the largest estuary on earth. At the same time, we the people who live in the Bay watershed need to wake up and realize that we are going to have to do more than pay lip service to the Bay’s majesty.

So let’s pull the plug on studies and wheel our dying patient out into the light of day. If the Bay is to die, then let’s make sure it happens out in the open air and with a little dignity, not in some musty scientific lab or a noisy meeting hall.

Breathe deep. See that golden pumpkin of a setting sun? Smell that faint odor of salt and muddy decay? Hear that laughing gull soaring gracefully overhead? That’s the Bay. And she ain’t through yet, friends.

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Last updated January 29, 2004 @ 3:15am.