A nominee for `czar' to oversee restoration of Chesapeake Bay

ON THE BAY

November 01, 2005|By TOM HORTON

It might prove an impossible task for any one human, but if I had to elect a "czar" to restore the Chesapeake Bay's health, Don Boesch would be a leading candidate.

The president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science knows the estuary from the ground up - he began his scientific career nearly 40 years ago studying the worms and other organisms populating the bay's bottom.

Today Boesch's perspective on coastal water quality issues, and the politics of them, runs as broad and deep as anyone's in the world.

He's overseen the university's environmental research for the past 15 years, only the fifth director in the school's 80-year history of Chesapeake Bay science.

He's also closely involved with major environmental restorations in Florida's Everglades, his native Louisiana's wetlands, San Francisco Bay, Alaska and the Baltic Sea that embraces Scandinavia, Europe and former Soviet republics.

Around the Chesapeake, Boesch is a leader in an era woefully short on leadership from both the political and science communities.

He's active on the boards of major bay environmental groups. After the Pfiesteria crisis he was key in reaching a scientific consensus that moved agricultural pollution control forward.

He was also a key player in slowing Maryland's rush to judgment on throwing the exotic ariakensis oyster in the bay without proper research.

Most recently he wrested a consensus from squabbling University of Maryland scientists on the need to proceed more cautiously with power dredging of the bay's scarce oysters.

He continues to raise cautions about current programs pumping money into crab hatcheries and planting underwater grasses: "We can't grow our way out of these problems without more attention to water quality," Boesch says.

He's also transformed the university's remote Appalachian Environmental Laboratory in Frostburg from an old-time wildlife study center to a place doing cutting-edge research on how large-scale landscapes far upstream of the bay influence its water quality.

So what does our hypothetical "bay czar" think about the Chesapeake's chances for recovery to the healthy system he encountered as a graduate student in the 1960s?

Boesch is neither cheerleader nor doomsayer, but always the realist. "What it would take is not that difficult to do, but I don't know if it's likely to happen," he says.

When he returned here in 1990 from building a marine research consortium in Louisiana, "there had been amazing progress since 1980, when I left. But during the '90s a certain inertia set in, a growing reliance on [computer] models to evaluate progress, instead of real data and measuring actual outcomes of our actions."

"We're going to need several big policy changes to move ahead. We got one with Maryland's flush tax [generating hundreds of millions of dollars for sewage upgrades], and I give Bob Ehrlich credit for that. Whether he has the vision and commitment to go beyond that, we'll see."

Reducing dirty air, a large part of the bay's pollution via fallout of nitrogen onto lands and waters, "won't be driven by bay needs; rather by human health, on a national scale. And so far there's little agreement on how we get to those goals or how fast."

Agricultural pollution, the biggest and probably toughest bay cleanup issue, Boesch says, "again probably has to happen on a national scale," reprogramming the tens of billions of dollars in subsidies now given to farm production, to target instead farm cleanup. "It's quite possible, but just not happening yet."

He is "least sanguine" about growth and sprawl, whose effects on the environment could in the long run offset progress in other areas. "We have not even defined what we mean by the `harmful sprawl' that the latest [2000] bay cleanup agreement aims to reduce, let alone done anything meaningful to stop it."

Boesch recently co-authored a detailed assessment of the bay's cleanup, "Chesapeake Futures," which concludes restoration is possible by 2030 (the current official timetable is 2010) but only if we pursue much more aggressive goals than anything currently agreed to.

"It comes down to political leadership and commitment. Many of our politicians line up and salute, support the bay, but they don't make it a top issue."

He's seen similar "leadership" in Louisiana, with much lip service paid to preserving the coastal wetlands that could have mitigated Hurricane Katrina's impact.

With his 60th birthday approaching this month, it's getting a bit personal for Boesch. "Reflecting on my early research, there were more than 100 species of worms and other organisms in some of those spots, and now you see water there that's depleted of oxygen. It hit me that the big decline in bay health has come on my watch.

"Somebody was kidding me about scattering my ashes over the bay when I die, and I told them, `I don't want my ashes scattered where they'll just go down into a damned dead zone. I want to be eaten by worms.' "

twh@intercom.net

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