Bay's 'vicious cycle in reverse' Progress: A recent report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation shows that while fouling of the watershed was a slow chain reaction, so is its cleanup.

On The Bay

October 09, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THIS COLUMN recently featured the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's new State of the Bay report, which ranked the estuary's health at 27 on a scale of 100.

That was progress, up about five points from the early 1980s, CBF said. But it is far from what it thinks is attainable -- about 70.

(A score of 100, the bay's pre-Colonial health, simply isn't realistic).

The report raises a concern: It has taken about 15 years to improve the bay's health by only five points. That represents one point every three years. On that timetable, it would take until 2127 to reach 70.

Neither comebacks nor declines in nature, of course, move at such an orderly pace.

Nor does CBF maintain that its bay health ratings, which are composites of 12 factors from rockfish to wetlands, are precise. Rather, the index of 27 is a benchmark from which progress can be measured.

Still, progress has been painfully slow. Today's column, as well as next week's, will examine why and whether we can expect to do better.

Everyone I asked agreed that the bay restoration, launched in 1983 by Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and federal agencies, must be seen against a countercurrent of rapid population increase -- both human and animal.

Faster than the bay watershed has attracted people, it has added poultry. While cattle and hogs, whose overall numbers aren't burgeoning, are raised on fewer farms, they are dramatically more concentrated.

Voluntary approaches to reduce pollution from animal waste have not proved adequate. Regulatory approaches are in their infancy. Few think this aspect of bay health is under control yet.

Human population continues rising at an estimated 12 people an hour (a million a decade) in the bay's watershed.

Technology, money and regulations have substantially reduced the most obvious human impact -- sewage -- but people continue hammering the bay's health in dozens of ways.

At rates that increase faster than our numbers, we burn more fuels for driving, heating and cooling.

Air pollutants such as nitrogen, falling across the watershed and washing bay-ward, are emerging as a problem on a par with sewage and farm runoff.

We are choosing to live more spread out, on large lots, which means more driving, more paving for roads, less forest and more septic tanks (the latter more polluting, per capita, than sewage treatment plants).

"I don't think most people have a clue yet how much their `D lifestyles are linked to bay health," said Kent Mountford, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Experts also agree that just arresting decades of decline has taken much of our effort to date: "a huge accomplishment," said William C. Baker, CBF's president.

EPA's Bill Matuszeski, who directs the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, says four kinds of delay are "virtually built in" to any large environmental restoration:

"The time between commitment and action, between action and reduced pollution, between reduced pollution and the system responding, between response and being able to recognize that response."

Cuts in farm pollutants that reach the bay through slow-moving ground water, for example, might take decades to show up. Even then, natural phenomena such as wet and dry years might mask the bay's response for years.

"Putting the brakes on the decline was such a huge undertaking, I wonder whether we've even gotten to all the issues that drove [the decline]," said Fran Flanigan, director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

For example, tax policies that often drive poor land-use practices, and the "huge" contribution of urban runoff to pollution have scarcely been dealt with, she said.

Although no one has illusions about a quick bay comeback, there is wide agreement that it could happen a lot faster than 130 years.

"A vicious cycle in reverse," some experts call this hopeful scenario.

Consider a simplified version of how things went downhill: the decline of forests and oysters and wetlands, which filter out critical bay pollutants.

Pollutants cloud the water with algae, which outcompete and diminish meadows of submerged grasses that also soaked up pollution. Pollution worsens, reducing oxygen in the water, which releases more pollution from bottom sediments, further reducing oysters, increasing pollution more, killing more grasses a vicious cycle.

Now: envision reductions in pollution, as we restore forests and wetlands and oysters, which filter more pollutants, which clears the water, which brings back some grasses, which soak up more pollutants, which raises oxygen levels, which reduces pollutants coming out of the sediments and boosts oysters, which filter a vicious cycle in reverse.

In other words, our good works could create positive feedback loops, fueling an "out of control" comeback.

The path to this stage won't happen with business as usual, said CBF scientist Mike Hirshfield:

"If [assessing] the last 15 years does nothing else, I hope it explodes the myth that the bay restoration works because it's voluntary."

While the overall state-federal cleanup is a "handshake agreement," most progress within that framework is attributable to "bans, moratoriums, deadlines," Hirshfield said.

These range from phosphate detergent bans, a rockfish moratorium and protective wetlands laws, to deadlines for sewage-treatment upgrades and a closure of goose hunting.

All this recalls ecologist Barry Commoner's argument in his book "Making Peace With the Planet" that our few real environmental successes -- cleaning up lead, PCBs, DDT, nuclear fallout -- resulted from bans rather than trying to regulate "how much the environment could tolerate."

Next week: a look at the chances of making progress in 12 specific areas that make up the bay's health.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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