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Two recent deflating events prodded me to question the future of restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
One was the end of another legislative session with a continuing failure of Maryland to enact the bold, aggressive measures we once did to reduce bay pollutants and lead other bay states. The legislature and conservation community failed to gain enactment of any meaningful measures to reduce pollutants even as the wheels are coming off the formal Bay Program after 36 years of effort.
This occurs as Maryland failed to meet its mandated 2017 reductions in nitrogen, the bay’s No. 1 pollution problem. These reductions have been mandated since 2009 because of repeated failures to meet Clean Water Act requirements as 60% of bay waters remain polluted.
The results include flesh-eating diseases in humans from bay water contact and collapses in the critical oyster population and a sharp decline in rockfish. Virtually no new initiatives were enacted to restrict harvest of oysters, better protect rockfish, or restrict pollutant flows from agriculture and the huge doses of raw chicken manure dumped on land. This farm pollution is the largest source of bay pollution and the cheapest per pound to reduce.
Nothing was done to address increasing nitrogen flows from development as the destruction of forests and their replacement with impervious surfaces continues.
The second disconcerting event was the required annual EPA assessment of progress made under the EPA led multi-state Bay Program begun in 1984. This assessment was a sham avoiding the shortcomings in meeting water quality requirements, glossing over major declines in oysters and rockfish, and failing to give the hard data on bay health necessary for a robust assessment.
Previously, the EPA shocked the conservation community declaring the court-mandated bay restoration limits on nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment to be voluntary. While still being debated, this decision could be the death knell for the bay as the EPA refuses to enforce violations of mandated pollution limits.
An example is oyster restoration. The EPA assessment notes that oyster goals are being met. The report cites $55 million spent on three oyster sanctuaries on 773 acres in the Choptank River Complex. Left out is the alarming 50% Maryland oyster decline from 1999 to 2018 and oyster overharvest and poaching.
Also left out is the previous goal of increasing oyster biomass in the bay by ten-fold from 2000 to 2010, a goal abandoned when oyster populations declined.
Equally appalling is CBF’s touting success in the 2020 legislative session, mentioning two laws enacted: one a minor change in how grants are made for agricultural best management practices and the other a redundant measure that the Governor vetoed in 2019 to develop another oyster management plan.
The former bill was gutted by taking out new funding under the bay restoration fund. The oyster bill did nothing to stop overharvest of oysters or otherwise restore populations. A phaseout of wild oyster harvest and a switch to aquaculture is what is needed. The Oyster Advisory Commission, an unwieldy oyster harvest/industry dominated group, has until 2021 to come up with new plans for the collapsed oyster population, likely blocking for years any meaningful actions to restore oysters.
Left out of CBF’s good news is that the first meeting of this group, which requires a 75% vote to adopt any proposal, resulted in chaos and had to be shut down after an hour with oystermen castigating other members and resulting in a failure to agree on procedural rules.
CBF also suffered a big setback when Gov. Larry Hogan eliminated their $440,000 grant which has been used since 1979 to take over 10,000 students and teachers on the bay for learning experiences each year. CBF was unsuccessful in restoring funding for this important program.
Other than a four-year ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos, the environmental community was skunked on other environmental measures from a plastic bag ban to limiting new huge chicken farming operations and another measure dealing with the manure. Significant change is needed to restore our great Chesapeake, but the bay and our environment were not legislative priorities while many major laws were passed during the shortened session including a blockbuster education bill.
What is necessary is for key legislators and the environmental community to formulate similarly aggressive legislative strategies to address the major pollution sources of agriculture and development and close the wild oyster fishery and tighten restrictions on rockfish harvest.
Gerald Winegrad represented the greater Annapolis area in the Legislature for 16 years, where he championed efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. He served on the tri-State Chesapeake Bay Commission and taught graduate courses in bay restoration and wildlife management he authored. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.