Scientist sees bleak future for bay

Mountford laments lack of consequences for those who harm the Chesapeake


The Capital, 2010.05.10

Morgan Gibson — Capital News Service Kent Mountford, an estuarine ecologist, environmental historian and former Chesapeake Bay Program Scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency resides in Southern Maryland on Leonard Creek. Mountford boasts that he shares the same beautiful view Capt. John Smith and Native Americans would have seen hundreds of years ago.

Joshua LUSBY - Despite restoration efforts, government dollars and a multistate movement to save the Chesapeake Bay, one scientist doesn't think a rescue is possible.

As a former Chesapeake Bay Program scientist and an avid sailor, Kent Mountford has been studying and sailing the bay's waters for 40 years, and learned the ins and outs of America's largest estuary. But all this knowledge has left him with a sorrowful outlook on the bay's future.

"One of the reasons I left the bay program was to try and enjoy it before it disappeared," Mountford said. "I go out on my boat and try to soak up some of what's left."

Mountford, 71, is an estuarine ecologist and environmental historian. He left the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000, and now spends his time sailing, lecturing at local colleges and writing books as well as a monthly column for The Bay Journal.

Mountford still monitors the bay, even though he's not on anyone's payroll. He tests the water's oxygen levels and visibility, then records it all in a huge three-ring binder. His oldest records date to 1976.

Mountford also works for Cove Corp., a small marine biological laboratory led by his wife, Nancy Kirk Mountford.

"He's always been dedicated to doing hard, honest work with the bay," his wife said.

The Mountfords live in Lusby in Calvert County with their two cats. Their historic white home sits on a cliff overlooking Leonard Creek.

Mountford said he feels lucky to live in such a beautiful place, and brags that, until recently, he had the same viewCapt. John Smith and Native Americans would have seen hundreds of years ago.

In the past few years, however, the land on the other side of the creek was purchased and developed, Mountford said. Now, especially at night, he can see a difference.

"Instead of walking out and seeing darkness, I now see floodlights on somebody's yard," he said.

This aspect of the bay is something that greatly interests Mountford. One of his books, "John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages, 1607-1609," tells of foreign explorers and Native Americans working, fishing and living around a younger and much healthier bay. As an environmental historian, Mountford is always interested in comparing the bay watershed of today with its past.

Rich Batiuk, the associate director for science at the EPA's Bay Program and Mountford's former colleague, said that Mountford's perspective was always unique because of his knowledge of environmental history.

"He always had a passion for the historical side," Batiuk said. "It was always Kent reminding us not to lose that perspective."

Breaking even

What Mountford is speaking up on now, what he thinks is wrong with the bay, is the watershed's huge population increase.

When Mountford first started working on the bay in the early 1970s, 11.8 million people lived in the watershed. Now there are nearly 17 million.

This population increase, Mountford said, weighs on the bay's health, bringing irreversible development and waste.

With the population boom, the bay's health should be a lot worse, but efforts by government programs and environmentalists have allowed the good to keep pace with the bad, he said.

Thomas Pheiffer, a retired EPA scientist who worked on bay issues from 1972 to 2005 out of Annapolis, agrees with Mountford. Pheiffer saw urbanization hit the area in the mid-'70s and witnessed the impact it had on the bay.

"Kent was right. We're doing our best to break even with the increases in the population," Pheiffer said. "Even though we're doing more with the practices … (the pollution) all goes somewhere and it goes in the creeks."

In the late 1960s, the consensus about bay health was that it was "pretty good," Mountford said. But in the 1970s that changed, with Hurricane Agnes and the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo.

"These numbers of insults to the ecosystem all came at once and this woke people up, that, 'Whoa, this is not the Chesapeake Bay of our grandfathers,' " Mountford said.

Environmental efforts to restore the bay started to get serious after that, and Mountford was a part of that effort.

Life's work

Mountford came by his love of the water naturally, growing up in Warren Township on the New Jersey coast. He nurtured that love with sailing on Barnegat Bay on a boat called the Silent Maid.

Mountford attended Rutgers University, receiving his bachelor's degree from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1960, his master's in 1969 and doctorate in 1971, the latter two from the Department of Botany, though his studies and research were in marine ecology. He did his thesis and dissertation on the plankton ecology of Barnegat Bay.

Mountford came to Maryland in 1971 to work with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia on environmental construction problems with the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant.

"I learned an awful lot about how the bay worked and what it was like at that time," he said.

One of Mountford's accomplishments was helping to fight for a ban against phosphates in commercial detergents. The result in the Potomac River and ultimately in the bay was "quite dramatic," he said.

He also helped implement a monitoring program for the Potomac River.

Because of that experience and his connection with the bay, the EPA hired him in 1984 to coordinate the monitoring program for the bay.

"We really believed that we could save the Chesapeake Bay," he said. "From the people, there was so much hope and energy, and this was when I was joining EPA, and I thought, 'Oh this is just great, you're on the leading edge of something which has a world focus.' "

People from all over the world were coming to see the kind of new work being done on the bay, he said. But now that's changed.

"I'm afraid … the whole program and all of the dreams we had have been buried in bureaucracy and the inability to deliver," Mountford said. "The Obama administration sort of gave a real firm charge to the EPA to come on, get it together, let's clean up the Chesapeake Bay. But the resources, the muscle is not there."

Mountford doesn't believe there has ever been any serious enforcement aimed at restoring the bay, even today. He said that people keep violating law after law, and that the consequences are never that serious.

Looking out onto Leonard Creek at his cliff-top view, Mountford reflects on how John Smith might have seen the bay, teeming with life, and how it is now.

"One of the most depressing things is to see how coastal Maryland has changed," Mountford said. "Despite me coming here as a missionary preaching the horrible mistakes that were made on the Jersey coast to scores of public groups in the Chesapeake Bay … saying, 'Don't let this happen to you,' … they did."

(Revised May 2010)