When the rains began pelting the Chesapeake Bay’s six-state watershed with a scope and intensity not seen for centuries, I was in my third month as a Baltimore Sun reporter, still learning how to craft a basic news article.
Tropical Storm Agnes, in June of 1972, threw me the biggest story I would cover in an environmental journalism career that’s lasted almost 50 years.
Agnes struck when the Bay’s fish, crabs, oysters and seagrass meadows were all spawning and flowering and at their most vulnerable. In a few days it smothered the estuary with more sediment and other pollution than it normally receives in decades.
I was too new at my Sun job to even get my name on the front page pieces I wrote. But Agnes lent me valuable perspective: how rare and unpredictable events can drive environmental change more than all of the day-in-day-out stuff you can spend a whole career thinking is “reality.” Some of the declines ushered in by Agnes persist to this day.
If our human watch is puny in nature’s grand schemes, it’s still long enough to draw useful observations. Here are some things that seem notable to me, looking back over a half a century of chronicling the Bay.
The visible pollution from industrial discharge pipes and smokestacks has been largely controlled. Bay rivers look cleaner than when I was growing up.
Largely invisible, the Bay’s current, biggest pollutant, nitrogen, was not even recognized as a problem by state and federal environmental agencies until the 1980s. It took a lawsuit by citizens, and scientists who risked their jobs, to change this. And not until the 1990s was one of the major sources of nitrogen — dirty air — deemed a “controllable” source. Bottom line: Restoration means attending to every piece of the puzzle.
Sewage treatment has been a triumph of technology, drastically reducing pollution from human waste even as the population in the watershed has more than doubled. Along with similar techno-fixes for cleaner air, this accounts for most of the modest progress we’ve made in Bay restoration. But this has also masked the other impacts of more people and more cars, such as more paving, more deforestation and fewer wetlands. And there’s not that much juice left to be squeezed from the sewage and air solutions.
Whether it is rockfish or crabs or oysters, you cannot manage what you cannot count. A survey that measured the yearly spawning success of rockfish, or striped bass, beginning in 1954 was key to alerting managers to an alarming decline in the 1980s. This led to a five-year fishing moratorium and current management that put rockfish on a relatively sustainable path.
Similarly, a Baywide blue crab survey began in 1990 picked up declines and gave Maryland and Virginia the proof needed in 2008 to take dramatic conservation steps. Crabs are managed fairly sustainably now.
For those things we did not count or invest with enough scientific effort — species like shad and oysters — the results were predictable: a shad moratorium since 1978 in Maryland and oysters reduced to around 1% of historic populations.
Survey, sample, monitor, measure — not sexy, so easy to cut in budgets. But no count, no manage.
Lands of the watershed
We all know that the Bay’s 40-million-acre watershed was green, mostly forested and the Bay was healthy before European colonists arrived.
But just as important, often overlooked, it was wet! This was courtesy of millions of beavers, damming and ponding, spreading and slowing the flows of water. There were also countless other natural wetlands, many drained long ago for development and farming. All that wetness sponsored bacteria that transformed polluting nitrogen into harmless forms.
We know this from Grace Brush, a Johns Hopkins scientist, who extracted sediment cores from the Bay’s bottom, analyzing what was washing off the land and living in the Bay going back thousands of years. The evidence is that wet-loving plants were much more dominant for most of the Bay’s history. For the Bay’s restoration we not only need greener landscapes, but wetter ones, too.
Agriculture remains a big pollution source, but farmers have proved to be capable of remarkable transformations, like a major shift from plowing to not plowing (conservation tillage, through which seeds are drilled into last season’s crop stubble.)
This minimizes erosion, sediment and chemical runoff and energy use. Add to it the fast-growing use of cover crops, planted post-harvest to suck up leftover fertilizer before it can run off to the Bay; new attention to soil’s organic content with an ability to store carbon; and innovative uses of animal manure to keep it out of polluting runoff.
Looking ahead, I don’t know if we will learn to feed ourselves without fouling the water. Looking back, it seems like we could.
We’ve protected close to a quarter of the Bay’s watershed from development, which seemed impossible in 1972. You weren’t even allowed to form a local land trust in Virginia then. It’s the clearest success we’ve had in my life. Globally and locally, we’re hearing aspirations of protecting half of our lands for nature, or at least in undeveloped status, a worthy and achievable goal.
Not sure I knew the phrase “ecosystem services” until the 1980s, but it’s developed bigtime during my watch. It means documenting the cleansing, filtering, buffering, habitat enriching values we get — for free — from wetlands, oyster reefs, forests, beavers, menhaden and mussels, etc., if we just let them do their thing.
We haven’t yet taken the next step seriously enough, which is to accord these services literal value, to act as if they are just as critical to our economy as cash and credit.
There’s a humongous piece of the puzzle still missing — attention to stabilizing the human population, whose growth is a consequence of running our economy like it must grow without limit or face ruin. That’s like saying you have to become obese or starve, with no option to just be healthy. Prosperity without growth is the idea economically.
Finally: Climate change, scarcely mentioned in a book I wrote on saving the Bay as recently as 2003, will make doing everything mentioned earlier even more critical.
Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University.