Rain, rain go away

August 04, 2002

THE DROUGHT has given Marylanders a momentary glimpse of what the Chesapeake Bay could be. The lack of rain has led to a lack of runoff into the bay, and that means clear water. No nitrogen to feed algae blooms, no sediment to cloud things up generally. The clear water encourages underwater grasses, and the beds of underwater grasses lead to even clearer water. In shallow bays and streams, especially on the Western Shore, the grasses are booming, and with them perch, pickerel, juvenile rockfish and crabs.

It would be great if it lasted. Veterans of the Chesapeake say they haven't seen it this clear for years, and there's more grass now than at any point in the past two decades at least.

It should be cause for celebration, except for two things. The grass may be doing better, but the beds are still a pathetically small fraction of what they were just 50 years ago. And it won't last.

What this summer offers is a preview -- a hint of how things would look if the bay and all its surroundings were healthy. But they're not, and the glow will soon fade, inevitably. This is literally the calm before the storm. A rainy spring in 2003 could wash two years' worth of nitrogen and sediments into the bay, and then the sunlight would again be blocked and the underwater grass and its attendant fauna would be struggling everywhere as before.

It appears, in fact, that a period of one to three weeks in the early spring may be the critical moment. "A few days of a lot of light or a little light can make a big difference," says Michael D. Naylor, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But there's no way to regulate the weather.

The problem is not poisonous pollutants. Some of the main culprits are wastewater treatment plants, individual septic systems, cropland and fertilized lawns -- all of which send nitrogen bayward, and all of which the state has been addressing in an effort to cut down on the nutrients that feed algae. There has been a 28 percent reduction in the past 15 years, but there's still a long way to go.

Another contributor: erosion stemming from development. Without natural vegetation on land, particles of clay wash right into streams and cut their clarity just as effectively as algae do. It's just plain dirt, but mixed in water it takes a toll on the eel grass. Pave a parking lot and kill a crab.

So -- there are no easy solutions. That doesn't mean there aren't any solutions. The Chesapeake has shown this year that it's resilient. Given half a chance, it can recover. Nitrogen runoff can be cut further. (Phosphorus, a big problem in the 1980s, is now a footnote.) Development can be done smarter. And the advantages are not theoretical -- not anymore, not with all that clear water and all those silky grasses. The proof is out there, right now.

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