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State of the Chesapeake [Editorial]

Our view: Latest 'barometer' finds the bay remains badly polluted, but there is also reason for optimism

2:44 PM EST, December 4, 2013

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To view the latest measure of the state of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, the Chesapeake Bay Program's "Bay Barometer," is not unlike receiving the interim report card of a chronically underachieving student. Whatever modest progress is reported, it's difficult to get past the miserably low overall grades.

This sort of science-based snapshot may be useful, but it's also a bit bracing — or "sobering" as some environmentalists have described it. Less than one-third of the Chesapeake Bay's tidal areas meet federally-approved water quality standards while three-quarters of 92 tidal areas tested positive for chemical contaminants, and underwater grasses continue to decline.

Not to sugarcoat the reality, but the report finds that the Chesapeake Bay of 2013 is a long way from meeting 2025 goals to reduce the major pollutants of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments. The only difference between these circumstances and those of that borderline student is that most parents haven't spent the billions of dollars and years of effort that have gone into the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

Ouch.

Yet that would be the foolish and woefully shortsighted way of looking at the data. Just as the pollution problem didn't arrive overnight, the process of reversing the damage is by its very nature slow and irregular with two steps forward often followed by one step back. Nor is the report completely devoid of good news.

The reality is that the amount of those major pollutants flowing into the bay has continued to be in steady decline since 1985. American shad are rebounding in places like the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, albeit modestly. The number of female blue crabs increased in 2012 and appears to have remained stable this year, which is welcome news for seafood-lovers everywhere. Rockfish are relatively plentiful, a circumstance that seemed highly unlikely 28 years ago when authorities had to close the fishery rather than risk losing the species entirely.

This is not the time to be discouraged but to stay the course and continue to look for ways to fine-tune pollution controls. The real value of the EPA-sanctioned barometer and similar reports is that they reveal the complexity of the ecosystem. The pollution in some rivers and streams comes from storm water runoff from city and suburban streets and parking lots. In others it comes from farm fields or failing septic systems, or perhaps municipal sewage treatment plants.

Those chemical contaminants that have so proliferated around the Chesapeake Bay might be prescription drugs flushed down the toilet, pesticides used on lawns or legacy chemicals from Sparrows Point. Mercury that comes from coal-fired power plants but eventually gets swept into creeks and rivers is another source of pollution.

Weather can affect any one year's results, too. That's why it's most important to look at the long-term view and not the data from any single year or even a few years. As scientists have observed, there's a lag time to any pollution controls — a reduction in phosphorus or sediments might take a decade or two or three to be noticeable in water samples in some cases.

This business of improving the Chesapeake Bay is neither easy nor without personal sacrifice. It takes a broad approach and one that is coordinated with all six states in the watershed as well as the District of Columbia. Indeed, it's probably as useful to mark the progress made in controlling pollution as to look at the contaminants contained in any particular water sample.

As the Bay Barometer notes, the past year has produced 285 more miles of forested buffers near the bay and its tributaries, 2,231 acres of wetlands created or re-established and 34 more miles of streams opened for migratory fish to spawn. Those are investments that will yield considerable dividends, not necessarily measurable tomorrow, but surely by the next generation.

The greatest mistake states like Maryland could make right now would be to get discouraged and retreat — to give up on fighting pollution from storm water runoff, for instance, because the means to finance the needed remedies has been ridiculed as a "rain tax." We can't deny the bay is polluted, but there is cause for optimism overall.


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