How to right our region's ecological mistake

March 2, 2006, midnight | By Becca Sausville | 13 years, 3 months ago

Lack of awareness and coordination are key to Bay's deterioration

The dusky pink and orange sunset over the Chesapeake Bay is lauded by visitors as a postcard-ready scene. And yet these visitors would be saddened to find that one of America's most precious natural wonders has been dealt multiple blows by Eastern Shore urbanization, careless Bay-area residents and, most recently, a lack of confluence between local governments in saving the Bay from ecological ruin.

The Chesapeake Bay, once a pristine home for hundreds of plant and animal species, has been reduced to a polluted disgrace. In the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2005 "State of the Bay" report, researchers gave a "D" grade to the overall condition of the Bay and its thousands of miles of tributaries. This grade was based upon extensive research into one of the Bay's biggest problems: a lack of oxygen due to pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen.

When these pollutants are washed away from sewage treatment plants, lawns, roads and other places, they are swept into streams and rivers that feed into the Bay, removing oxygen from the water and killing aquatic grasses and, subsequently, Bay-dwelling organisms. In 2005, 41 percent of the Bay's waters had too little oxygen to support a stable ecosystem. Scientists refer to this poor state of health as "a dead zone." That percentage may rise without a collective effort on the Bay's behalf.

Failure to launch

Everyone can agree that the Bay needs help. But help will never arrive without adequate cooperation on the part of Eastern governments. Take, for instance, the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, a list of goals outlining an ambitious strategy for reviving the Bay by 2010. Signed by leaders from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, this document exemplifies the kind of alliance absolutely critical to the Bay's survival.

It has been six years since that document was signed, leaving four years to raise oxygen levels, bring back oysters, educate people about the Bay and implement programs to reduce runoff — just to name a few goals that have not yet been reached.

The reason for this is buried beneath mounds of bureaucratic shortfalls. For years, state budgets have dedicated millions of dollars to Bay-related programs. But throwing money at the Bay has not been working, partially because regional leaders are not working together to make proper use of this money. For example, Maryland has consistently outspent Virginia in Bay restoration, even though both states make up the Bay's home.

The situation would be different if the money was resulting in a noticeable improvement in the Bay's condition. But instead of using the money to form a single committee that could create and implement one cohesive plan of action, state governments have spent inefficiently and independently. A promising effort came in 2005, when the Chesapeake Bay Program announced the creation of a Watershed Financing Authority to allocate funds where they are needed. The committee would include representatives from the seven states on the Eastern shore, all of which would, by 2010, contribute a combined $15 billion to restoration efforts. This authority is exactly what the Bay needs — one group of representatives from watershed states who would evaluate where the resources are most needed and put an end to the current feckless spending.

The Bay also faces challenges on a federal level. President George W. Bush's proposed 2007 budget would, according to a Feb. 7 The Baltimore Sun article, cut $25 million from various Chesapeake Bay programs vital to restoration efforts.

Salvaging the wreck

Even with the obstacle presented by funding, there is still an easy way to help the Chesapeake — education. Many of the 16 million people who live within the Bay's watershed don't encounter the Bay on a daily basis, and they don't see the impact of their ecologically irresponsible behavior. People simply do not experience the habitat for which they are taxed to maintain — they don't see the need to reduce sewage in streams or increase the Bay's oxygen levels.

Better publicity could remedy this problem. Bay volunteer Charlie Conklin, in an acceptance speech for an award from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, detailed the need for a well-known local figure such as Cal Ripken to spike interest. This idea has merit — a man who inspired thousands of kids to play baseball could definitely inspire thousands of people to take the time to learn about the importance of saving the Chesapeake Bay, a vital resource for farmers, fishermen and the local tourism industry.

Local children also need to have more experiences with the Bay. This could be done through required field trips. Perhaps MCPS could replace the sixth grade Outdoor Education field trip sites with camps located on the Bay. As for pollutants, people have to know why they should be expected to recycle and must have the proper recycling facilities in public areas.

There is still time to save the Bay before it's too deteriorated. But in order for this to happen, people need to realize that their actions, however small, can have a large impact on a body of water that has been a part of too many lives to be forgotten by one generation. And it is critical that local governments take the time to work together so that the damage can be undone now rather than years from now.

Becca Sausville. Becca is a senior who is keeping the dinosaur dream alive. She loves Silver Chips a lot, possibly more than life itself. More »

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