Strengthen bay cleanup efforts
Did you know that, starting this year, June 4-12 is Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week? It’s time for each and every one of us to stop what we are doing and realize what we have. Chesapeake Bay is a remarkable resource that provides something very special in our lives. Like arteries in the living body, the rivers, streams and marshes of the bay bind us together.
As a teenager, I remember wading into a Patuxent River teeming with clams, crabs, fish and oysters. The river was so clear I could look down in shoulder-deep water and see blue crabs scurrying for deeper water. In the 1950s, commercial watermen earned as much as $5,000 each in about 50 hours seining for croakers. Now the clams and underwater grasses have disappeared because of pollution and over-har vesting. And croakers, already challenged by cold winters, are harder to find.
Things have been worse. When the bay was in real trouble back in the 1970s, there was a rising tide of concern. People realized polluted runoff from sewage, stormwater from cities and farms and air deposition were killing the bay. They wanted to do something about it — and they did.
Within a decade, we created the most important cleanup effort ever seen anywhere. The states and federal government began working together to reduce nutrients and sediment flowing to the bay. The Chesapeake Bay Commission, and later the Chesapeake Bay Program, set new policies to control sewage and stormwater treatment, protect open space and reduce runoff from farms. Even though our population has grown to nearly 18 million, we have managed to maintain or improve conditions in many parts of the bay.
Blue crab populations, on the verge of collapse in 2008, doubled their numbers in just four years as the result of careful harvesting restrictions. Sea grasses, which need clear water to thrive, are beginning to come back in a number of areas, especially on the Susquehanna Flats. And in the main stem of the bay, dissolved oxygen — which all bay life needs to survive — has started to increase.
In small watersheds like Mattawoman Creek, where vigilant pollution control efforts have been made, nutrient loads have gone down. Water quality has dramatically improved, algal blooms have decreased by a factor of five and sea grasses have rebounded mightily.
But now is not the time to become complacent and throttle back our efforts. We are seeing very positive changes because of the work we have done over many decades. We cannot slacken our efforts just when things are beginning to turn around. We have got to get fired up like never before and get this bay clean.
Our bay — the third-largest estuary in the world — is one of the most vital fisheries on Earth. In 2012, Maryland and Virginia together harvested a half-billion pounds of seafood valued at $3.34 billion in annual sales. What if all our impaired rivers got cleaner every year, just like Mattawoman Creek? Our fishery’s wealth would rise for generations to come. More importantly, our children would know a clean Chesapeake Bay.
In my home river, the Patuxent, water quality has not improved very much, despite our best efforts. Every June, I wade into the river with river lovers and friends until we can no longer see our feet. I’ll do it again at 1 p.m. this Sunday, June 12, at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. In 20 years, I haven’t gotten much beyond my waist. We are not doing enough to reduce pollution in the Patuxent. It is true there may be other reasons water quality in the Patuxent is flagging, including pollution that may be coming in from the main stem of the bay.
We can’t improve conditions in just one or two tributaries and expect that to be enough. The health of the whole watershed depends on the health of all its parts. We need to double down in ever y watershed to restore every part of the bay if we are to call this restoration effort a success. Let’s focus on our part.
We have been at this cleanup for a long time. Sometimes I worry my memory of the way things used to be is fading from public view. I also worry people will tire of the effort without demonstrable gain. I don’t sense the enthusiasm of many years ago. Our recent successes give us great hope, but we must convey to all Chesapeake citizens that we cannot rest on our laurels. Let’s accelerate and make more good things happen.
I am 92. I don’t know how long I’ll be around, but my great-grandchildren will be here for decades to come. If we keep up our efforts and reinvigorate public support, maybe someday they will be able to wade shoulder deep into the Patuxent, look down at the bottom and see their feet. Our rivers and our Chesapeake are priceless. Let us never, never, never give up.
To find another bay awareness event near you, go to www. chesapeakebay.net/takeaction/events.