Editorial: Living downstream

A political truism in Maryland is that everyone is in favor of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Anyone who has lived in the Free State for more than a few years has at least a passing familiarity with stories of the Chesapeake's seemingly limitless bounty in years gone by. Rockfish, crabs, oysters, shad, clams, perch and even sturgeon and diamondback terrapins from the bay provided fine table fare to the cities surrounding the waterway and well beyond.

Then there were the sporting opportunities that brought the rich and famous to Maryland: waterfowl hunting, fishing, sailing and swimming.

It appears the health of the Chesapeake bottomed out some time ago, but the recovery isn't happening nearly as quickly as the decline that ravaged Maryland's signature natural resource. Partly that's because the damage done was so extensive and over a span of a few hundred years.

Partly also, however, it is because while everyone is in favor of saving the bay, relatively few people are in favor of changing any number of long standing practices that are harmful to the Chesapeake.

When the pesticide DDT was banned in the early 1970s, there was fear-mongering that crops would be devastated by insects and mosquitoes would make the outdoors unbearable. The chemical was banned despite the warnings and now the upper Chesapeake is home to one of the nation's largest bald eagle populations.

A succession of owners of the Conowingo Dam resisted making provision for a minimum water flow during low water months saying it would be detrimental to the electric company's ability to provide power to its customers. Federal regulators, however, insisted on a minimum flow in the 1990s as a condition for renewing the dam's permit and the result has been a substantially increased runs of American shad (thanks also to rigorous stocking programs) and their smaller cousins hickory shad (without any hatchery propagation assistance).

Strictly regulating rockfish harvests by sport anglers and watermen, it was said, would be the end of a Maryland tradition. Instead, strict regulation has resulted in a Chesapeake striped bass fishery that is as good as or better than the bay has seen in generations.

Requiring sewage treatment plants to process wastewater to a degree that it is nearly as clean as what comes out of home spigots was considered ridiculous and expensive to the point of breaking town and county budgets. As it turns out, the costs weren't so high as to be prohibitive, and the result has been cleaner bay water.

No one was ever going to have clean clothes again when phosphates were banned from laundry detergents.

Banning anti-barnacle boat bottom paint containing the chemical tributyltin – which is deadly not only to barnacles but also to other more desirable shellfish – was going to mean the end of sailing, water skiing and pleasure boating. Didn't happen. Same goes for the ban on allowing boat toilets to be flushed directly into the water.

Strictly regulating development within 1,000 feet of the shoreline of the tidal areas of the bay was going to be a horrible blow to the home building industry in Maryland. Again, the prophets of doom were off the mark.

Dozens of similar regulations have gone into effect, many over the strenuous objections of the people affected, and predictions of the end of this or that way of life have proven to be exaggerated at best.

Early on in the Save the Bay movement (remember those bumper stickers?), it quickly became clear that the aforementioned sources of pollution needed to be addressed, but there was another massive source of pollution damaging the Chesapeake Bay, namely runoff from the many thousands of acres of farmland and livestock yards in the Chesapeake Bay drainage area.

While this source of nutrient pollution — pollution in the form of nitrogen fertilizers that spark unnatural blooms of algae that in turn die off quickly and rot just as quickly, consuming dissolved oxygen and creating dead zones — was considered important to address, most regulatory actions to this end were put on the back burner. It's easier to fix a sewage treatment plant dumping millions of gallons a day from a single pipe than it is to address a million farms that dump a few thousand or a couple tens of thousands of gallons of topsoil-laden rainwater or a couple of tons of farm animal waste on an inconsistent schedule.

At this point, a lot of the low hanging fruit in the Chesapeake cleanup effort has been picked and now there are more strenuous efforts at regulating farming practices in such a way as to cut back on nutrient pollution and improve the quality of the bay's water.

In Harford County, predictably those most dramatically affected have spoken up about proposed state regulations to require some livestock to be fenced out of tributary creeks and to regulate the times of year when manure can be spread on fields. Angry about the way hearings on the regulations were scheduled, they have raised many of the same kinds of red flags waved in the past when bay saving regulations have been in the offing. And speak out they should. The process needs to take into consideration the concerns of all affected, and laws need to be crafted to be as painless as possible.

Make no mistake, however: farmers will not be the only people affected by these laws. Everyone who lives, works or plays downstream also will be affected, but most likely in a positive way. When a farmer saves a few dollars by allowing livestock to have direct access to a creek, resulting in topsoil erosion and animal waste running into the bay, those downstream are affected. Maybe it's someone who isn't able to take a swim in what had been a clear running stream, or maybe it's a waterman whose usual fishing spots end up off limits thanks to high bacteria counts in the water.

If the bay is ever to be returned to anything approaching the bountiful seafood supplier it once was, its waters are going to have to be made cleaner than they are today. Already the bay is cleaner than it was 20 years ago, but there's a lot more to do, and dealing with polluting farm runoff is something that needs to be done.

There is room for debate about the details, but the reality is that failing to deal with regulating farm runoff will mean a stagnation of bay cleanup efforts and, for all practical purposes, a stagnation of the bay itself.

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