Saving the Chesapeake Bay: How the small things all add up | COMMENTARY

Cathy Bevins, who was born and raised on the east side of Baltimore County, last month offered legislation to exempt waterfront restaurants and marinas from certain regulations that have restricted their growth. There was a logic to the idea. A lot of these businesses have struggled financially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Sixth District Baltimore County councilwoman no doubt viewed this as a chance to give them an economic boost. The regulations in question probably seemed fairly innocuous. Such businesses are currently required to keep “buffer strips,” areas of grass, shrubs, trees or other vegetation immediately adjacent to the water. Why not let them extend seating areas or add other “minor” amenities to attract customers? Yet before the council could even vote on the idea, Ms. Bevins withdrew it after she was made aware that the state’s “Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas” law, which requires the buffers, allows for no such local exemptions.

Lesson learned. Or was it?


What the brief rise and fall of the ordinance did provide was an excellent demonstration of why “saving” the nation’s largest estuary has proven such a challenging task over more than four decades of effort. What plagues the Chesapeake Bay is not a single source of pollution or even a few. Rather, it’s the proverbial death by a thousand cuts as small decisions over what might seem like humdrum matters — such as land use choices abd the maintenance of city storm drains — can collectively have an enormous impact. This is particularly true for the bay’s single great challenge: reducing the amount of excess nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus that cause the algae blooms that, in turn, die and reduce dissolved oxygen levels, killing vital native plants and other aquatic species.

Remember those vegetative buffer strips? They can be the difference between nutrient-laden particles washing into a bay tributary or slowing down and settling into the ground. And here’s the kicker: As bad as nitrogen from wastewater (particularly from poorly performing sewage treatment plants like Back River) may be, nitrogen from stormwater is expected to surpass it by 2025. And that can’t be fixed by denying a permit or sending in state officials to clean up your mess. The Chesapeake has 11,864 miles of shoreline. And each mile provides thousands of opportunities to make a mistake, whether it’s allowing soil to pour off your yard in heavy rain or pouring leftover chemicals down the storm drain or just failing to pick up your pet’s droppings.


But wait, it’s really much worse than that. It’s one thing to make the connection between irresponsible waterfront development and Chesapeake Bay pollution — although the U.S. Naval Academy’s pursuit of a possible golf course at Greenbury Point at the mouth of the Severn River suggests it’s not obvious to all — it’s quite another to appreciate how this problem extends across the watershed all the way to West Virginia and New York. Cutting down a tree in Westminster may not seem to be especially impactful (and by itself, it probably isn’t) but what if 100 homeowners make that same choice? Or a thousand? Or 10,000? Suddenly, the effect is not so small.

Scientists are constantly trying to measure the impact of such small, individual choices on the ecosystem. One Virginia study suggests that there’s been a 0.4% decrease in juvenile crabs for every 1% increase in bulkheads, rip-rap and other hardened shoreline within a river system. Meanwhile, climate change is increasing the intensity of storms. The mistakes we make today from the loss of forested areas to the over-reliance on turf as a farm crop (the shallow root system of fescue and similar species can’t absorb all the fertilizer farmers apply to keep it green and growing) and the continued suburban and rural sprawl development with single family homes and strip shopping centers popping up every day are only going to get worse.

So yes, the legislation was a bad idea not simply because it ran afoul of state law but because Maryland’s single greatest natural asset, the Chesapeake Bay, continues to be at risk. And we all bear a measure of responsibility for it, no matter of inconvenient that can sometimes be. That includes waterfront business owners.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.