The Capital (Annapolis, MD) June 19, 2003 Thursday

Copyright 2003 Capital-Gazette Communications, Inc.
The Capital (Annapolis, MD)

June 19, 2003 Thursday

HEADLINE: Our say: Mathias right about need for bay preservation efforts

ONE OF the last things Charles McC. Mathias did as a U.S. senator from Maryland, while he was cleaning out his Capitol Hill office in December 1986, was talk with one of our reporters about his long-range concerns for the Chesapeake Bay.

No one had more credibility on the subject. Thirteen years before, in 1973, Mr. Mathias' 450-mile boat trip on the Chesapeake led to the first comprehensive federal study of the bay, which in turn was a major factor in the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

"I think the most optimistic thing you can say is that we've hit bottom now and (are) prepared to go up," Mr. Mathias said in 1986. "My greatest worry, I suppose, is that the growth in population of the bay area will be so rapid that we are not able to contain the damage. The additional sewage that goes into the bay, the silting that results from highway construction, residential development, the overuse of bay facilities - all the things that go into explosive population growth. If it were gradual, we could probably accommodate it. If it comes too fast it will be a disaster."

All in all, this was a good forecast of the problems the bay would face in the following decade and a half. This week, almost 30 years to the day after that history-making boat trip, Mr. Mathias was at Kent Narrows for a meeting with politicians, environmentalists and watermen. The consensus: While bay restoration programs - many of them growing out of Mr. Mathias' efforts - have helped, much remains undone. The best government and environmentalists are currently managing is a holding action.

As Mr. Mathias points out, rockfish have recovered and bottom grasses are returning. But the blue crab and oyster fisheries remain weak, and efforts to stem nutrient pollution - the bay's No. 1 problem - fell far short of the Chesapeake 2000 goals.

All sorts of question marks hang over the bay's future. One concerns efforts to control growth. Another is whether U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes can round up federal funding for efforts to upgrade some 300 wastewater treatment plants in the six-state bay watershed. A third is the environmental policy of Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration, which has just removed a Glendening administration regulation on poultry processors and is promising to strike a balance between cleaning up the bay and sparing farmers from excessive government intrusion.

"We have to rev up our efforts because more needs to be done," Mr. Mathias told the meeting at Kent Narrows. He's right. And it was good to see Mac Mathias still making a difference in an area of vital importance to the state - an area where he has already done so much.