Senior Chesapeake Bay scientists and former policymakers joined with environmental activists Wednesday to call for bold and "drastic" measures to restore the ailing estuary, including mandatory controls on runoff from farms and existing urban and suburban areas.
In what one former lawmaker called a "gathering of eagles" at the State House in Annapolis, one speaker after another from Maryland and Virginia, recalled their struggles to clean up the bay over the decades. With many of them graying, they warned that there was little time left to act before it would no longer be possible to recover the natural bounty they remembered the bay had had in their youth.
Voicing their frustration with states' half-measures, they urged Washington to take charge and enact 24 "critical steps" that they said would have to be taken to have a chance of success. And they decried the pushback they said was coming from national farm and development lobbies against legislation pending in Congress that would give the federal government greater authority to force states to do what's needed, or face mandatory sanctions.
William Dennison, a scientist at the University of Maryland environmental laboratory near Cambridge, said the bay is at what he called ecological and societal "tipping points." A few rivers in the bay are showing signs of recovery, he said, with water quality and underwater grasses improving. Other areas, though, are getting worse.
The problem, Dennison said, is that the bay as a whole is choking on a glut of nutrients from sewage, farm and lawn fertilizer and air pollution. Noting that he'd overeaten a bit himself during the holidays, the scientists said the Chesapeake needs to be put on a strict nutrient diet. "We need Weight Watchers for the bay," he said.
Rom Lipcius from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said he's seen evidence that blue crabs and oysters can recover if big enough changes are made in how they're managed. "We have to have bold, sweeping changes, drastic changes," he added, and interstate cooperation. Without it, he concluded, he doesn't hold much hope for restoring the bay.
Their main hope for such change now seems to reside in Washington, not state capitals. Tayloe Murphy, a former Virginia natural resources secretary and longtime legislator, said recent moves by the Obama administration and in Congress mark what he hopes will be "a new beginning" for restoring the bay. But he said change is needed not just in water pollution laws and regulations, but in land use and people's attitudes, to preserve and restore the natural and cultural heritage of the bay.
"When I drive around the Northern Neck (of Virginia), what do I see? ... I see cigarette boats and jet skis. I don't see oyster boats and crab pots." Land owners and municipalities in pursuing their own benefits and pleasures have been allowed to degrade a resource that belongs to everyone, Murphy said. That, too, must change, he concluded.
Wayne Gilchrest, former congressman from the Eastern Shore, chimed in, saying that individuals' constitutional rights to private property do not give them the right to pollute what belongs to everyone. He said he worried that public ignorance about the bay has led to indifference about its fate, and even contempt for the natural bounty that it once had - and still has, to a degree. To clean up the bay, he said, people's minds need to be cleaned, too.
William Eichbaum, who was Maryland's chief environmental regulator when the bay cleanup began 26 years ago, recalled that he thought the Chesapeake would begin to recover in a decade or so, given the dramatic actions that launched the restoration effort then, including pioneering controls on waterfront development.
"We've thrown more money at the Chesapeake Bay than probably at any other restoration area in the world," he said, and the bay has had more scientific study and arguably even more political leadership than other troubled waters. Yet there's not been enough progress, he said, and in some areas the bay is actually worse off than it was decades ago.
"We have to make harder decisions than we did a decade or maybe two decades ago," he said.
With Chuck Fox, senior bay advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, sitting quietly in the back of the room taking notes, Joseph Tydings, another former Maryland lawmaker, said the Obama administration offers the best hope of making those tough decisions.
Tydings said he believes Gov. Martin O'Malley is sincerely trying to restore the bay, and he likened him to former Gov. Harry Hughes, who launched the restoration effort. But Tydings said O'Malley is hamstrung by the same "special interests" that have thwarted or watered down cleanup measures in Annapolis for years.
"Governor O'Malley can only do so much," Tydings said. "We need help from the EPA...," he added, because time is running out for the bay."