Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 42

October 17-23, 2002

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The Sad State of Our Bay

It doesn’t take as long to fix a broken economy as it does a broken environment.
Adlai Stevenson: Fall of 1952 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York

Some years later, the former governor of Illinois would put such thinking in more statesmanlike words as the environment became increasingly more a political issue, but that is pretty much the way I heard them straight from the mouth of the candidate a month before the presidential election of ’52.

Over the past 50 years, I’ve thought not infrequently of that night at RPI auditorium in upstate New York. It was back when candidates still did much of their campaigning via whistle stops — trains pausing in any community big enough to turn out a crowd for a short speech, which was often made from the platform of the rear car of a campaign train at the local railroad depot.
A young reporter, I had covered Ike’s nomination in Chicago, then in mid-campaign had left a city newspaper in Massachusetts to join a small county seat daily in Bennington, Vt. For a few days, I rode the Stevenson whistle stop tour in the Adirondacks.

That was back when candidates mingled with the press; there was small talk and political talk — and it was at a time when conservation (environment and ecology were little-used words then) was beginning to play a more prominent role in national politics.

Stevenson had completed his speech before a packed house, followed by a formal press conference, and before he was whisked back to the waiting train, there was time for a little informal talk. Most of the big-city political reporters were at typewriters or phones sending their stories back to the office, so there were only a few news hawks around for small talk.

As we chatted, the subject of conservation came up and lasted for no more than a minute, maybe two. It was no big deal at the time because communism, corruption and Korea were the prime election issues. I have long forgotten the thrust of the candidate’s speech that night, but I can never forget his few words on conservation and the economy.

Nor can I help but appreciate that they are more appropriate today than when originally spoken. This was obvious the other day when the fifth annual Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay Report was released. The news was not good.

Three-Quarters Dead
Economic considerations still rule; conservation plays second fiddle. On a scale of 0 to 100 (the latter being the rating of the pristine Chesapeake described by Capt. John Smith), the Bay’s health is now pegged at 27, the same as in 2001. It was also 27 in 1998, and 28 in ’99 and 2000.

Despite all the talk and promises from politicians, Bay managers, governments of Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Pennsylvania over the past five years, we’re still where we were five years ago — and with the troubled Chesapeake that’s far from acceptable. Where are you, Adlai Stevenson, when we need you to pound some sense into the heads of those with the wherewithal to get our Bay on the road to recovery?

Here is the Chesapeake, a near trillion-dollar asset (it was valued at $687 billion in ’87), and we’re helplessly witnessing it going down the drain. Sure, there’s talk of it costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion to really turn things around — and that sounds like a lot of moola. But do we play Scrooge at the risk of losing a potential trillion-dollar asset?

By the way, that $20 billion estimate wouldn’t be as costly in taxes and assessments as it might sound. It would be divided among the three states; there undoubtedly would be generous matching federal funds, grants from both the public and private sector, and other sources — and over at least a decade.

Think of that current 27 rating, then think of the drought we had this summer. Had it been a normal season, there would have been more runoff with more pollutants entering the Bay. We’d probably be at a 26, tops, which would have been the lowest since the State of the Bay ratings originated.

Let’s not forget that those pollutants that didn’t run off into the Bay this year will probably do so next year, and what will the figure be then? How does that strike you?

To put all this in perspective, the Foundation’s John Page Williams offered this analogy when we discussed considerations in the latest rating. Scientists might say ‘You’re on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.’ Then it’s boosted to 9,400 calories in three daily meals of spare ribs, fries and soft ice cream — with some oatmeal cookies.

So what happens? The same things happen to you as what happens to the Bay, which has been forced to “consume” more than it can handle, primarily in nitrogen and phosphorus ‘calories.’ Now you get an idea of what’s going on in the Chesapeake.

We had a drought the past summer, which brought about a minuscule improvement in water clarity, nitrogen and phosphorus — up one point. Know what that’s equal to in the analogy? Eating one less oatmeal cookie a day in that 9,400-calorie diet.

You might last a short time longer on this earth, but you’d know what’s ahead — as any rational person would realize what’s ahead for the Bay unless we give up much more than a single cookie of nitrogen, phosphorus or some other silent killer.

Point by Unsavory Point
Here’s the CBF rundown.

Keep in mind that 100 was the score when John Smith first laid eyes on the Bay in the 1600s. The total score is made up via the average of each component. Unless indicated otherwise, the score is the same as in ’01.

Habitat: Wetlands, 42; Forested buffers, 54; Underwater grasses, 12; Resource lands, 30.
Pollution: Toxics, 28 (-2); Water clarity, 16 (+1), Nitrogen and phosphorus (16 (+1); Dissolved oxygen, 15.

Fisheries: Crabs, 40 (-2); Rockfish, 75 (same as 2001, though this writer has nagging concerns about the presence of mycobacteria — red sores on rockfish); Oysters, 2, and Shad, 7 (+1).

Tell It Like It Is
I appreciate guys like Will Baker, the Foundation president — guys who know how things stack up and who don’t hesitate to tell it like it is. Who else is there in authority to put it this bluntly, effectively and accurately? “In the past five years, we have seen lackluster leadership and no system-wide improvements in the Bay’s condition.” Overall improvements to the severely degraded Bay system continue to be stalled by nitrogen pollution, he added.

Particularly troubling, said Baker, is that the government effort to protect and restore the Bay has “run aground on the reefs of bureaucracy. The Chesapeake Bay Program is utterly stuck on developing the minutia of water quality criteria before it acts to cut pollution, even though we know with absolute, scientific certitude that if we dramatically reduce the nitrogen entering the Bay, water quality will improve.”

But who’s listening. Everything stays the same. Last November, in commenting on the ’01 State of the Bay index in this publication, I had the following to say. Is it not appropriate a year later?

The State of the Bay — despite all the talk we’ve been hearing — remains ominous. We’re fed a diet of planning, long- and short-range, but still the picture is gloomy with worse on the horizon. Meanwhile, things remain pretty much the same.

Allow me to ask: Are you satisfied? Are we getting anywhere in our pledge to Save the Bay? If you know the answer it’s not a question. Enough said.

I repeat, enough said.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly