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Let Us Never, Never Give Up

Now is not the time to become complacent in Bay cleanup

Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week, June 4 to 12, is a good time for each and every one of us to stop what we are doing and realize what we have. Chesapeake Bay is a remarkable resource that provides something very special in our lives. It is more than just a pretty view, an occasional fishing trip or a crab cake. Its presence permeates our lives. Like arteries in a living body, the rivers, streams and marshes of the Bay bind us together.
    As a teenager, I remember wading into a Patuxent River teaming with clams, crabs, fish and oysters. The river was so clear that I could look down in shoulder-deep water and see blue crabs scurrying for deeper water. In the 1950s, commercial watermen earned as much as $5,000 each in about 50 hours seining for croakers. Now the clams and the underwater grasses have disappeared because of pollution and over-harvesting. Already challenged by cold winters, croaker are harder to find.
    I know: Things have been worse. When the Bay was in real trouble back in the 1970s, there was a rising tide of concern. It was a crisis. People realized that polluted runoff from sewage, stormwater from cities and farms and air deposition was killing the Bay. We wanted to do something about it. And we did.
    Within a decade, we created the most important cleanup effort ever seen anywhere. The states and federal government began working together to reduce nutrients and sediment flowing to the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Commission, and later the Chesapeake Bay Program, set new policies to control sewage and stormwater treatment, protect open space and reduce runoff from farms. Even though our population has grown to nearly 18 million people, we have managed to maintain or improve conditions in many parts of the Bay.
    Now, after more than 40 years of effort, there is finally some extraordinary news. Blue crab populations, on the verge of collapse in 2008, doubled their numbers after just four years of careful harvesting restrictions. Every signal says this will be a very good year. Sea grasses, which need clear water to thrive, are beginning to come back in a number of areas, especially on the Susquehanna Flats. In the main stem of the Bay, dissolved oxygen — which all Bay life needs to survive — has started to increase.
    In small watersheds like Mattawoman Creek on the Potomac, where vigilant pollution control efforts have been made, nutrient loads have gone down. The result? Water quality has dramatically improved, algal blooms have decreased by a factor of five and sea grasses have rebounded mightily. This is all excellent news.
    But now is not the time to become complacent. We are seeing very positive changes because of the work we have done over many decades. To slacken our efforts just when things are beginning to turn around would be tragic and inexcusable. We have got to get fired up like never before and get this Bay clean.
    Our Bay — the third largest estuary in the world — is one of the most vital fisheries on Earth. In 2012, Maryland and Virginia together harvested a half-billion pounds of seafood valued at $3.34 billion in annual sales. What if all of our impaired rivers got cleaner every year, just like Mattawoman Creek? Our fishery’s wealth would rise for generations to come. More importantly, our children would know a clean Chesapeake Bay.
    In my home river, the Patuxent, water quality has not improved very much despite our best efforts. Every June, I wade into the river with river-lovers and friends until we can no longer see our feet. I’ll do it again this Sunday, June 12. In 29 years of wading in, I haven’t gotten much beyond my waist. In my opinion, we are not doing enough to reduce pollution on this river.
    True, there may be other reasons water quality in the Patuxent is flagging, including pollution that may be coming in from the Bay. That is the point! We can’t improve conditions in just one or two tributaries and expect that to be enough. The health of the whole watershed depends on the health of all its parts. We need to double down in every watershed to restore every part of the Bay if we are to call this restoration effort a success.
    We have been at this cleanup for a long time. Sometimes I worry that my memory of the way things used to be is fading from view. I also worry that without demonstrable gain people will tire. I don’t sense the enthusiasm of years ago. Our recent successes give us great hope, but we must convey to all Chesapeake citizens that we cannot rest on our laurels.
    Let’s accelerate and make more good things happen.
    I am 92 years old. I don’t know how long I’ll be around, but my great-grandchildren will be here for decades to come. If we keep up our efforts and re-invigorate public support, maybe someday they will be able to wade shoulder-deep into the Patuxent River, look down at the bottom and see their feet. Our rivers and our Chesapeake are priceless. Let us never, never, never give up.