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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A polluted Chesapeake Bay kills creatures and chokes plants

We must Endow the Bay to clean it up

The Virginian-Pilot

A polluted Chesapeake Bay kills creatures and chokes plants. It also destroys human lives, a fact made all too clear during a Virginia Marine Resources Commission deliberation on how to save the blue crab.

The VMRC instituted regulations on Feb. 26 to limit the crabs watermen take from the estuary. "We're not going to survive this," said Charles Pruitt from Tangier Island. "You might as well throw us out now; we've been regulated to death already."

That has been the all-too familiar reaction from fishermen and oystermen on a Bay decimated by pollution and disease.

Everyone knows the stories about the first explorers finding a Chesapeake Bay so crowded with wildlife that they could walk across on the backs of rockfish, eating oysters the size of dinner plates.

The modern Bay is a different place. Starved of oxygen for months at a time, filled with nutrients and pollutants, the oysters are almost gone, and the crabs are in trouble. After decades of effort, the rockfish have rebounded, thanks to the same kind of draconian management the watermen now decry for crabs and oysters.

The Bay has been destroyed by suburban sprawl, by overtaxed sewer systems, by destructive farming techniques. Its enormously complex, and badly understood, ecosystem has been knocked completely out of whack.

There's no way to be precise, but estimates blame two-thirds of the nutrient pollution in the Bay - nitrogen and phosphorus - on sloppy crop farming, on suburban runoff, on animal waste. Fertilizer and other nutrients wash into the watershed, essentially from any place it rains.

The stuff causes algae blooms, which rob waterways of oxygen. Which in turn kills the Bay and the animals and plants in it, and everything that depends on them.

"Water quality is the key," said Kelly Price, an Eastern Shore crabber, at the VMRC meeting. "Without that, you lose habitat. And without habitat, you're done."

The state has spent and is spending money to deal with the ancient and faulty municipal sewer systems that surround the Bay. That is a significant part of the Bay's problem - probably a third or more. But Virginia has yet to deal in a meaningful way with runoff from farmers and homeowners.

The reason is simple: Such "nonpoint source" pollution is hard to control. The state would have to do expensive things like help more farmers put up fences to keep animals out of creeks and rivers. It would have to do unpopular things like force farmers to maintain buffers to collect field runoff, or find a way to get homeowners to stop putting fertilizer on their lawns. The state would have to find a better way to control stormwater runoff, which washes fertilizer and pollutants directly into the Bay.

And it would have to pass laws to punish people and cities that don't or won't do those things.

All of which would be politically difficult - at a time when the state budget needs to be trimmed. But the effort is undeniably necessary at a time when 170,000 people move into the Chesapeake watershed each year, bringing more pollution and more damage.

"For all of the progress we have made upgrading sewage treatment plant technologies, we're losing ground on impervious surfaces: rooftops, driveways, roads - all of which carry sediment," said Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant Jr. "I would say we're having a hard time now achieving the environmental protections to offset that kind of rapid growth. We can't conserve land fast enough to offset some of the other stuff."

General Assembly committees this year passed a bill to spend $100 million, but the bill died, a casualty of the economic slowdown. So, once again, Virginia faced a budgetary choice, and the choice was to spend money on things other than the Bay.

Under the threat of federal sanctions, the state committed years ago to cleaning up the Chesapeake by 2010. Virginia will not meet that deadline, and a gutted Environmental Protection Agency is unlikely to punish Richmond. But that doesn't invalidate the state's obligation.

Virginia's spending on the Bay must begin to meet its promises, no matter what happens to its finances. The solution to economic vagaries is to remove Richmond's choices, to create an irrevocable fund devoted permanently to Chesapeake cleanup. Maybe it's a penny of the sales tax, as has been proposed in the past. Maybe it's a new flush tax. But it should be something that can't be revoked.

If it wants to get serious about saving the crabs, the oysters and the watermen, Virginia must dedicate real money to the cause of the Chesapeake Bay, money that can't and won't be the first to disappear when the economy heads down the tubes.

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1 comment:

Swoof said...

Good stuff, Oysterman. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

I have tons of recipes but I've been bad at posting them.

I'm hoping for a stop on Chesapeake Bay this year.