The Chesapeake Bay may be a complex ecosystem affected by temperatures, winds, salinity and tides, but it’s also not difficult to summarize its overall health. Recently, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the nonprofit that has been advocating for the nation’s largest estuary since 1967, encapsulated it into a report card with this overall grade: D+.
In other words, if the 64,000-square-mile watershed reaching into six states and Washington, D.C., was a child in school, it’s well past time for a parent-teacher conference and some serious intervention. Yet that awful grade, released one week ago, seems now forgotten, just another news item read across the cheery TV anchor desk and then set aside, so the hosts can talk about the latest sports scores or weather forecast. Nobody seems to be denying the facts of the Chesapeake’s poor circumstances — the rising levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, the algae growth “dead zone” created when algae blooms decompose and consume precious dissolved oxygen — nor not the diminishment of the seafood industry. It’s just that people don’t seem to care that much.
Are we overstating matters? Maybe. But probably not. Too often in recent years, it seems like environmental issues have become so politicized on the national level that conservatives have simply refused to engage in solutions or even debate, preferring to retreat toward outright denial — refusing to admit, for example, that burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gas emissions that are changing the global climate in an alarming and deadly manner. Or perhaps we’re lost in a fog of whataboutisms that focus on the unfairness of how the corporate jets of billionaire philanthropists spew far worse emissions than a fleet of pickup trucks, a not-wrong conclusion that at least acknowledges a problem exists. Or it could be that the COVID-19 pandemic has simply turned our focus inward to the degree that other issues at our doorstep seem more urgent, whether it’s gun violence in Baltimore, declining student test scores or vaccine mandates. Or maybe it’s just too familiar: This year’s high crab prices and scarcity gave everyone a pretty good tipoff.
Whatever the reason, the apathy is pathetic.
The Chesapeake Bay is simply too valuable a resource, too precious and beautiful a landmark, too much a part of these state’s identity, to accept that it must remain mired in sediments, in excess nutrients, in toxins and “forever chemicals,” polluting runoff from streets and farm fields and the like. The good news is that progress is possible. We have made some. And the bay is capable of snapping back. Just look at success stories like the return of the bald eagle. In the 1970s, there were as few as 60 breeding pairs in the region. Today’s it’s closer to 2,000, mostly the result of a ban on the pesticide DDT. Cleaning up sewage treatment plants, requiring farmers to follow stricter conservation practices, preserving open spaces, planting more buffers, regulating a broad variety of polluters, these are more difficult and costly labors that don’t always produce benefits as quickly as a DDT ban. But they will eventually — if given a chance.
Are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices? In Baltimore alone, it’s disappointing how littered with trash the city seems these days. Or how the head of the city’s public works department is only now announcing he’s stepping down after such a catastrophic tenure of contaminated tap water, a failing Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant that required state intervention and more than two years with limited recycling pickups is nothing short of extraordinary. How can we reasonably expect the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce cleanup goals in states like Pennsylvania and New York if we can’t meet pollution standards ourselves? The short answer is: We can’t.
We may be past the time of year for New Year’s resolutions, but it is never too late to invest ourselves in a Chesapeake Bay restoration, beginning with requiring communities to do a better job of handling stormwater runoff, a major source of pollution. Let us lead by example. And let us begin by negotiating a new agreement across the watershed, setting clearly defined goals for all the states within a specific timeline. Yes, it’s been tried before. We came up short. But just like the parent of a wayward child, giving up is not an option. And who knows? Perhaps in 2024, we’ll inch up to a C- or even a C, and the world will be, if not our full adult oyster, perhaps our juvenile spat looking to fulfill its potential.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.