Cleanup progress painfully slow Pollution: A Chesapeake Bay Foundation report says the bay watershed is getting cleaner. But some feel improvement is occurring at glacial speed.

On the Bay

September 18, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

How's the bay doing?

It is at slightly more than a quarter of its healthiest -- 27 on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 representing the clear waters and abundant seafood extolled by Captain John Smith and other explorers four centuries ago.

A score of 27 also puts it just under 40 percent of the way back to the best shape (70 on a scale of 100) we can realistically expect to achieve.

And yes, it is on the way back, though progress is depressingly slow -- 27, up from an estimated 22 or so in the early 1980s.

The ratings come from a brave new "State of the Bay" report released last week by the 90,000-member Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The foundation has been "saving the bay" since 1968, and it knows the perils of precisely indexing a huge and naturally variable living system like the Chesapeake and its 64,000-square-mile watershed.

But after three decades, with many of its current leaders having served 20 years or more, the foundation has a good feel for the bay's pulse.

And an understandable, credible benchmark for measuring our progress in restoring the bay is urgently needed.

As time goes by, for example, it is easy to forget that every time we reach a "compromise" or a "balance" between the bay and other interests, we are compromising a system that has already been hugely impaired.

I recall a conference in California that featured a whole morning of heated discussion on the pros and cons of filling several acres of San Francisco Bay's tidal wetlands.

Finally, a participant reminded his colleagues that some 97 percent of that estuary's wetlands were already gone -- yet there they sat, haggling over the "proper balance" between development and the last 3 percent.

The foundation's bay health index gives a value of 43 to wetlands, based on good evidence that the watershed has lost about 57 percent of these critical natural habitats.

Similarly, the estuary's equally critical underwater grass meadows get an index of 12, having declined by 88 percent to 69,000 acres, from about 600,000 acres a few decades ago.

Bill Matuszeski, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, takes issue with the foundation's choice of values here.

He says the foundation dismisses recent progress, which has resulted in minimizing further wetlands loss, and nearly doubling underwater grasses acreage from the early 1980s nadir of 34,000 acres.

A matter of spin

Mostly, Matuszeski's criticisms seem a matter of spin, not substantial disagreement. He is aware that you risk turning people off if you do not give them hope of progress.

On the other hand, I have already seen anti-environmentalists calculatingly misuse the underwater grasses acreage, talking up the doubling as if to say, what are environmentalists whining about, and never mentioning the monstrous decline that preceded it.

The foundation's index also incorporates values for the health of various fisheries. Shad, for example, get a score of 2 out of 100.

I often write and speak about what an important connection and a joyful sport the shad were in my boyhood during the 1950s and 1960s, as they ran from the ocean up bay rivers to spawn in April.

I also mention how my children, 20 and 17, have never had a chance to savor this, since all shad fishing in Maryland rivers has been shut down since 1979.

But that isn't what worries me the most. It is that my children aren't nearly so bummed about this as their dad. It's hard to miss what you never had.

What to me is anguish is to them history. This will also happen with wading for softshell crabs in the grass beds, with anticipating winter's fat, raw oysters, with so many other aspects of the bay at its best, if its restoration does not move faster.

An index like the foundation's at least gives us all, those who remember and those who are too young, a measure of progress and a benchmark for what we should expect.

The foundation will not be accused of grade inflation, with its overall mark of 27. It used tough measures, assigning a 70, for example, to striped bass, which have become as numerous as at anytime in memory.

But, the foundation argues, the species has not recovered its full, healthy range of large, old (10-25 years old) spawning females; and there are growing concerns about whether the bass are being stressed by disease and an inadequate food base of smaller fish.

I asked Kent Mountford, an EPA Bay Program scientist who is also a serious student of the early Chesapeake, what he thought about the foundation numbers.

He said he thought his boss, Bill Matuszeski's point about needing to remind people of progress, was a valid one, "but I came up with my own index, using about eight additional variables I thought the foundation could have included, and I got a number of 27.5.

"The fact is, there has not been any big comeback in the bay," Mountford said. He added one reason rapid progress is hard is that "we add about 12 people an hour" to the watershed. That translates into about 1 million people every decade.

I do find the slow pace of our restoration alarming -- all the more reason for this new index. The problem is not just more people, but too much compromise in the protections we provide; too many loopholes, too-long phase-in periods and too little enforcement.

The bottom line is that for all our considerable efforts since the latest bay restoration effort got rolling in 1983, we've come from about 22 to 27, with a goal of 70.

We're either flunking, or planning to stay in school for the rest of our lives.

The foundation's report offers a strategy for meeting an interim goal it thinks is achievable, getting to 40 by 2005.

You can get the complete report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation by calling 410-268-7742. The full report is also on the foundation's Web site: www.savethebay.cbf.org.

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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