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Volume XVII, Issue 12 - March 19 - March 25, 2009
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Ninety percent of clams and in some places all oysters died. But the Bay bounded back.

Old Books and Long Memories

A big old storm revives my hope for our beleaguered Bay

Climate is what you expect.

Weather is what you get.

–1001 Logical Laws, compiled by John Peers

The weather we got on the last Thursday of June of 1972 was certainly not what we expected in Chesapeake Country.

I was sorting through old books when I came across Impact of Tropical Storm Agnes on Chesapeake Bay, published by the Army Corps of Engineers three years after the skies dropped six to 12 inches of rain on the Bay. One hundred twenty-two people died, and $4 billion losses (in ’72 dollars) resulted.

Agnes brought back many memories as I paged through that old report. And she gave an old man hope. But first, the memories.

Aggie Made Me $1 Richer

I was writing outdoors columns for the Evening and Sunday Sun at the time. Every day back then, Phil Heisler — managing editor of the former and a close friend — and I made a wager of a buck. It could be on anything from whether the stock market’s last digit on closing would be odd or even to who would win a game in sports to whether there would be snow flurries, measurable rainfall or peak wind velocities that day or the next.

Until then my most astounding win came in 1969, when I put a buck down that Joe Nameth and the New York Jets would beat the seemingly invincible Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. I beat astronomical odds, but in no way could that feat match our bet on the Wednesday of that fateful last week of June. Heisler suggested a bet on rainfall the next day. His dollar said it would be dry; mine that it would rain.

Weather predicting wasn’t nearly as sophisticated 37 years ago, and not infrequently we were taken unawares by what we observed on arising in the morning.

The next day we woke to more than six inches of rainfall in Baltimore. For years, the woes of the Chesapeake were assigned to Tropical Storm Agnes and the damage she wreaked in a few days on the Bay and its tributaries.

Aggie’s Wrath

I think of Tropical Storm Agnes as the Bay today remains in deep doo-doo, and Earth itself not in much better shape.

In some areas the rainfall on that June Thursday set new records. Flooding was quick and massive. Streets became canals in some sections of Baltimore, and most rivers crested at levels higher than recorded in 200 years.

The Susquehanna River alone sent 151⁄2 times as much freshwater into the Bay as normal. In some areas it was 60 times normal flow, killing countless aquatic creatures dependent on salinity. More sediment was washed into the Bay from the Susquehanna alone than in the entire previous decade: an estimated 31 million metric tons.

At peak impact, the storm delivered 1,500 tons of phosphates and 2,500 tons of nitrates daily via the Susquehanna. One couldn’t see an inch below the surface; many millions, perhaps billions of Bay creatures lacking mobility perished due to sediment and lack of oxygen. Ninety percent of clams and in some places all oysters died. More mobile species fled to waters little more tolerable. It was more than three weeks before fishermen started catching again. Aquatic vegetation died. The only salvation was that Aggie was not accompanied by high winds, which would have raised monumental havoc via erosion.

Yet the Bay Bounced Back

Yet Chesapeake Bay is a big body of water. Within a decade, it bounded back, as did its inhabitants, to pre-Aggie status. What’s more the Bay patched itself with little assistance from the scientific community other than temporary catch limits on natural resources. Is this not a lesson as to what is possible if we were to pitch in and intensify Bay restoration programs?

Yet our leaders say issues of a vulnerable and crashing economy take priority. We’ll get to ecological concerns later.

Like presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, twice a loser to Ike, I believe that environmental issues should not take a back seat to economical concerns. Stevenson’s point was that in the long run it would take many-fold more in expenditures to fix what went wrong with our habitat. Today’s leaders have forgotten Stevenson’s sound advice — and Aggie’s lesson.

Agnes should have taught us, but we forget quickly. So we fail to appreciate the inherent capability of the Chesapeake to lend itself a hand. Likewise, we do without the funding and the manpower to turn the tide in Bay restoration.

One thing we must keep in mind: At some point even a determined sick patient can die. Resilience doesn’t guarantee survival. We’re irresponsibly gambling on when the Chesapeake reaches that point.

Methinks we can make the difference if we put a full measure of pressure on our leaders — and display our own willingness to make sacrifices in these tough times.

Enough said.


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