"Bay:New era, same concerns," The Capital, June 17, 2003
The Capital (Annapolis, MD) June 17, 2003 Tuesday
Copyright 2003 Capital-Gazette Communications, Inc.
The Capital (Annapolis, MD)
June 17, 2003 Tuesday
SECTION: FRONT; Pg. A1
HEADLINE: Bay:New era, same concerns
BYLINE: MIKE UNGER, Staff Writer
"One final item I must share with you is my impression of the bay as a uniquely beautiful and vital asset to Maryland and the lives of all who live on it. Out on the water, enjoying the breeze and the freshness, it is hard to believe that such a resource could be in danger, and one day may be lost to us."---
When then-U.S. senator Charles McC. Mathias wrote those words shortly after embarking on a landmark five-day boat sojourn of the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1973, he had arrived at a dire conclusion: The nation's largest estuary was in peril.
Thirty years later, Mr. Mathias and scores of environmentalists, watermen and politicians agree that while certain facets of the bay have been gently nursed back to health, its overall condition remains critical.
A group of them gathered yesterday at a Kent Narrows crab house to reflect on the bay's past and plot its future.
"The momentum to save the bay has slowed and it must be reignited," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "There simply must be a binding framework if the agreed-upon goals are to be met."
The bay's future, in short, is as murky as some of its water.
"We're about where we were back then," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association, who accompanied Mr. Mathias on his first tour. "That doesn't mean it went downhill. We're just keeping it from getting worse."
After spending five hours in a helicopter yesterday observing what took almost a week to see by vessel three decades ago, Mr. Mathias urged legislators and the environmental community to step up their conservation work.
"We have to rev up our efforts because more needs to be done," he said at Harris Crab House, where he was joined by U.S. Sens. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., and John Warner, R-Va., Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Kent, and former governor Harry Hughes. "We're dealing with a moving target."
The Bay Program
Among the most important results sparked by Mr. Mathias' original 450-mile tour was the first comprehensive study of the bay, completed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The multimillion-dollar study was a major factor in the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Program, an alliance of federal, state and local governments that coordinates bay study and management programs.
While some efforts have succeeded in reducing harmful nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, nutrient levels still exceed those mapped out in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, signed that year by Chesapeake-area governors, the District of Columbia mayor and the EPA administrator. The agreement set forth several goals for restoring the bay.
Nutrient pollution, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, is generally accepted as the bay's No.1 enemy. Found in human and animal waste, fertilizers and emitted by cars, it causes the growth of algae clouds, which in turn prevent oxygen from reaching aquatic species.
While the level of nitrogen pollution has decreased from 336 million pounds in 1985 to 274 million pounds in 2001, that reduction still falls far short of Chesapeake 2000 goals.
"It is the biggest problem facing the bay, no two ways about it," said Christopher Connor, a program spokesman. "But there are 16 million people (who live in the bay watershed). If we get each one of them to do one small thing, you can see ecological change."
Modernization of wastewater plants is a vital but expensive way to reduce nitrogen pollution, according to environmentalists.
"We know what we have to do with sewage treatment plants," said Russ Train, EPA administrator from 1973 to 1977. "It's just a matter of doing it."
Mr. Sarbanes has introduced a bill that would provide $660 million over five years to improve technology at about 300 major wastewater treatment plants in the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed. Upgrading those plants would achieve 40 percent of the total nitrogen reduction needed.
The bill would be pocket change in the expensive clean-up task, which Mr. Sarbanes said would cost $19 billion. About $6 billion has been earmarked by federal, state and local governments, he said.
With high-profile fisheries such as blue crabs and oysters staggering, it is easy to overlook successes of the last 30 years.
That's why Mr. Mathias proudly pointed to several accomplishments in bay restoration.
"Rockfish have recovered and bottom grasses, which are so critical, are returning," he said. "But every time you build another house (near the watershed) or drive another mile, you're increasing the difficulty of recovery."
Bay grasses, which provide habitat for blue crabs and other species, have grown from 40,000 acres in 1983 to 85,000 acres in 2001, according to CBF.
But in the eyes of Mr. Baker and others who love the bay, more must be done.
"Chesapeake Bay restoration is like a shark," he said. "It must constantly move forward or it will die."