Busting myths about the bay

Folks who are paid to keep watch over the Chesapeake Bay spend a good chunk of their time dispelling myths.

They’ve heard it all: It’s too late to save the bay. It’s not my fault. They bay isn’t really polluted.

We rounded up several local bay experts and asked them to share the biggest misconceptions people have about the bay and bay restoration. And we’ve asked them to set the record straight, as well.

Our experts include representatives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Here are their top myths about the Chesapeake Bay.

There’s no point in trying to save the bay. It’s too late.

This is the myth that’s the toughest for those who devote their lives to the bay.

Headlines may scream about oxygen-deprived “dead zones,” but there’s still a lot of life in the bay, said Richard Batiuk, associate director for science for the Chesapeake Bay Program.

“The bay is not dead,” he said. “It’s not healthy, but it’s not dead.”

John Griffin, the state secretary of natural resources, acknowledged the bay will never be perfect. But it’s worth saving, he said.

“Probably at this point, it’s unrealistic to expect we can restore the bay to some pristine state of years ago. I certainly think we can restore it to a certain level ... We can certainly get a lot better than we are now,” he said.

Most experts agree that the bay’s health is holding steady. Considering that more people are moving into the bay area each day, they say holding the line actually represents progress.

And despite the problems, the bay still has a lot of good things going for it: rebounding populations of rockfish, ospreys and bald eagles; flourishing underwater grass beds in some spots; productive wetlands and marshlands.

Which leads to another myth.

The bay doesn’t look that bad. It doesn’t really need saving.

Drive over the Bay Bridge or dine in a waterfront restaurant and the view of the bay is a beautiful one.

But many of the bay’s problems lurk unseen.

“It’s still stunningly beautiful and that can hide the problems,” said Stephanie Reynolds, a scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Sure, our urban harbors often have trash in them, but the bigger problems are nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

Those big three pollutants kill underwater grasses, suffocate oyster reefs and fuel algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water. That, in turn, stresses crabs and fish and throws the ecosystem out of whack.

The problems may be hidden, but they are still there.

It’s someone else’s fault.

This myth comes in several variations: Blame the farmers, especially the ones in Pennsylvania. Blame the greedy watermen. Blame the industrial polluters. Blame careless boaters. Blame the do-nothing politicians.

Chris Conner, a spokesman for the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, calls it the “circle of blame.”

Kim Coble, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s top official in Maryland, said she hears people blaming others on a daily basis.

“I truly believe we can’t point the finger at anyone besides ourselves,” she said.

But there’s no winner in the blame game. It turns out we’re all a little bit at fault.

The truth is that the sources of the bay’s problems are many: runoff from farms, runoff from cities and suburbs, failing septic systems, old sewage treatment plants, air pollution from cars and power plants, overfishing — the list goes on and on.

Farms are bad.

Farmers often are vilified in debates about cleaning up the bay.

But in fact, maybe farms aren’t so bad after all. Experts say that a well-run farm pollutes less than the equivalent acreage of suburban sprawl.

The key phrase here, however, is “well-run farm.”

Farms still are a large source of harmful nutrients that fuel the algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water.

But nutrient pollution from agriculture is decreasing, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. That’s due to two reasons: farmers doing a better job and farms shutting down.

Environmental groups across the country are trying to get more federal money for farmers’ conservation programs as the 2007 Farm Bill is being debated, so pollution from agriculture could continue to decrease.

All we have to do to save the bay is restore the oysters.

Oysters are nature’s great filter and they are a big part of restoration plans.

But the amount of oysters needed to clean all the pollution we send flowing into the bay would be impossible to achieve, Mr. Batiuk said. And they’d never reach the deep channels in the bay that have some of the worst problems.

“We can’t fully restore the bay without oysters and filter feeders, but they can’t do it alone,” he said.

Nothing I can do will make a difference.

Sure, the actions of one person won’t save the bay.

But if you believe in the “drop in the bucket” theory, enough drops will make the bucket overflow. Likewise, enough individual actions can add up to make a difference.

Perhaps that’s an optimist’s point of view, but it’s one endorsed by Mr. Griffin, the DNR secretary.

“In a sense, we kind of need a citizens’ call to action. If every citizen starts to change their lifestyle in many respects, that citizen is leading by example,” he said, adding that can lead to a “groundswell.”

And only then will we start to make progress.

It doesn’t matter what I do because I don’t live on the water.

Only a small fraction of the bay watershed’s 16 million residents lives on the water. But all of us have an impact.

The watershed is a 64,000 square-mile area that stretches into parts of six states. And every bit of water in the area eventually flows downstream into the bay.

So whether you live in a waterfront mansion on the Severn River, a rancher in Harundale or even a house in Cooperstown, N.Y., your actions influence the bay.

Money for the bay is all wasted on pointless studies.

Academics take exception to this myth.

Dr. Donald Boesch, who oversees scores of researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, acknowledges that there have been a lot of studies on the bay.

Those studies have led to a lot of knowledge — but there’s still a lot more to learn, he said.

And scientific monitoring is needed to verify whether bay restoration programs are working — or not.

“We think these things will do the trick, but we have to verify,” he said.

I can’t help because I don’t like going outside and getting dirty.

Planting grasses or oysters or cleaning a stream isn’t the only way to help the bay.

A great, non-dirty way to help is staying abreast of issues and making your voice heard. You can read the papers, check Web sites and sign up for e-mail lists. You could join a local environmental group and go to the meetings. Or you can write letters to the editor and call your politicians.

“There’s a lot you can do that can literally be done from your computer,” said Ms. Reynolds of the bay foundation, citing lobbying politicians as one way to help. “Just a few voices can be the difference between not paying attention and putting it to the forefront.”

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pwood@capitalgazette.com

 

(Revised August 2007)