500 columns is but a start of the journey


Reflections While appreciating the estuary's wonders, there is still much to do to restore it.

October 03, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

TODAY marks the 500th appearance of this weekly column, more than a decade of analyzing what's right and wrong with the Chesapeake Bay.

This columnist still "awakens every morning, torn between a desire to change the world, or just to enjoy it," as essayist E.B. White wrote of himself.

That will be the case if the column lives to be 1,000. Much remains of this bay that is fishable, swimmable and beautiful.

Last week I paddled in perfect solitude past colonies of pelicans and terns and skimmers, hooked a fat rockfish from the marsh edge for dinner around sunset, and scored two soft shell crabs from a local waterman to go with it.

Who would want to change that?

Meanwhile, our lack of gumption to change the bay's overall polluted condition is becoming downright scary. Scary because it's close to becoming the norm. It's all anyone who was born here or moved here in the last few decades has known.

I never had illusions that the massive, multistate-federal Chesapeake restoration effort, begun in 1983, would succeed quickly or easily. But I did not think that, 20 years later, we would see water quality only marginally better, prospects of restoring it tenuous at best and the restoration effort virtually rudderless for the first time in its history.

That's not a judgment I come to easily. I am mindful that in the very first of these 500 weeks' worth of columns, I promised, "While this column will be about environmental problems, it must also be about hope."

But this summer, 20 years after the bay restoration effort was launched, I completed a substantial update of Turning the Tide (Island Press, 1991), a book done with the Abell Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to assess progress in improving the bay's health.

It was no surprise to find progress had lagged. More worrisome was finding little reason to predict better during the next decade or so. Of the major pollution sources to the bay - sewage, dirty air, farm runoff and urban storm water - only the first can be called likely to improve significantly - and there's no guarantee of that.

Outrageous? Yes. Hopeless? It needn't be.

We know how much pollution to cut in order to return the bay to levels of water quality not seen since the 1950s. We have the technologies to do it, and 16 million citizens, along with the federal government, can afford the $13 billion or so that would be needed over the next decade.

But who will make it happen?

Not the current governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the three major states of the Chesapeake watershed. All of these men, I believe, take protecting the environment seriously, but none has shown interest in making a huge, troubled ecosystem like the bay the high priority it must be to achieve real restoration.

And not the Environmental Protection Agency, the main federal sponsor of the restoration effort. It is the creature of an administration whose leadership, including both houses of Congress, is as hostile to environmental progress as any we've seen.

I might add that our president and all three governors, last time I checked, were popular with a majority of voters.

No law of physics says things can't change, but our most likely version of "progress" on the bay will be holding the line against further degradation as a million more people move into the watershed every decade.

Actually restoring water quality to pre-1970s levels would mean reducing pollution more than twice as much in the next decade as we did in the past couple of decades.

There's plenty of discussion going on among environmental groups and concerned legislators as to how to jumpstart progress in the leadership vacuum that exists. There's talk of a baywide Legal Defense Fund, modeled after national efforts that have made huge environmental gains by suing to enforce clean air and water laws.

There are those who argue that the federal Clean Water Act could be used to force sewage treatment upgrades, for example, if voluntary moves continue to languish. There are possible alliances between bay cleanup groups and those more concerned with public health, sprawl and traffic congestion, and urban problems.

The last decade or so has seen a blossoming of small watershed and "riverkeeper" groups, oriented around a single stream or river. These could coalesce as a force to elect more responsive political leaders.

There's a move afoot to develop the theme of "bay as investment," to document the monetary returns on each dollar invested in a healthier ecosystem.

There's not enough talk about more serious "changing the world":

Stabilizing population growth before sheer numbers overwhelm our ability to reduce our environmental impacts.

Inventing industrial and agricultural systems that restore, rather than degrade environmental quality, shifting to doing good, rather than striving to be less bad.

Adopting economic models that account for nature, instead of assigning a plus to the Gross Domestic Product whenever a marsh is filled for a shopping center.

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