Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Bathing in the falls. (Photo courtesy of MacGillivray Freeman Films / Photo by Wade Davis)
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan declared that it was time to “begin the long, necessary effort to clean up a productive recreational area and special national resource—the Chesapeake Bay.” He was right to recognize the Chesapeake’s national importance in his State of the Union address. The Bay’s watershed comprises 64,000 square miles in the heart of the mid-Atlantic region. Washington, D.C., lies in the very center. The Chesapeake is the United States’ largest estuary and the third largest in the world. The Bay’s productivity has been legendary. As recently as 40 years ago, and long after Captain John Smith sailed up theBay in 1607, the Chesapeake was producing one-quarter of the nation’s succulent oysters and half of its blue crabs. Nine out of ten rockfish (a.k.a. striped bass) caught from Maine to North Carolina were born in the Chesapeake. In 1989, the (then)

• The Chesapeake Bay is North America’s largest estuary (an area where fresh and salt water mix) and the world’s third largest.
• The watershed covers 64,000 square miles and is home to about 17 million people.
• 2007 saw one of the worst crab harvest levels in 50 years, and the oysters are all but gone: less than five percent of historic population levels remain.
• The Bay watershed supports more 3,600 species of plant and animal life, including about 350 species of fish.
• Thousands of watermen have been forced out of business due to depleted fisheries.
• After a one inch rain, health departments close beaches to swimming due to polluted runoff.
Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Developmentestimated the economic value of the Chesapeake to Maryland and Virginia at $678 billion. Rebecca Hanmer, former director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office, noted in the Bay Journal (October 2004) that inflation alone marks the Bay as at least a trillion dollar resource today. Nearly 17 million people—a number growing by almost 200,000 each year—live within the Chesapeake’s watershed. The cumulative impact of this migration has been severe degradation of a national treasure. We have uprooted forests and farmland to make way for sprawling development. We have dumped partially treated sewage, as well as the fertilizer, waste, and soil that runs off yards and fields, into the rivers that are the lifeblood of the Bay. We have demanded more energy from power plants that spew poisons into the air, our waters, and our lungs. Many farming techniques deliver overloads of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the Bay. We have all but decimated nature’s own filter system—the Bay’s network of forests, wetlands, underwater grasses, and oysters. As a result, the Chesapeake Bay is in critical condition. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes the Bay, and the tidal portions of many of the rivers that feed it, on its notorious “dirty waters” list. To track its condition, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) issues an annual report assessing the state of the Bay. Using the best available science,CBF measures current data against the healthiest Chesapeake we can describe—the Bay Captain John Smith depicted in his narratives, a theoretical “100” on a 100 point scale. In 1983, the Bay’s nadir, it would have scored a 23, indicating a condition only 23 percent of 1607 levels . In 2007, the Bay scored a 28, one point lower than in 2006, a grade of D. The Chesapeake Bay Program (the federal/state partnership directing Bay restoration since 1983) and the University of Maryland have conducted similar assessments with similar grades. We are determined to make the Bay a model of success, not failure, and we believe that the multi-state/federal effort to save the Bay will be a model for other complex ecological systems worldwide. Fortunately, critical elements of long-term success are starting to fall into place. The world’s best estuarine scientists work here. They have clearly defined the reasons for the Bay’s decline and the steps necessary to restore it. We know what the problems are, what pollutants come from which regions and in what concentrations. We know that nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are responsible for the Bay and rivers’ systemic decline. And we know the primary sources: inadequately treated sewage, polluted runoff from urban and agricultural lands, and even emissions to the air. Science tells us what the Bay can tolerate, and provides a “roadmap:” we know the specific strategies that will reduce pollution and restore the natural filters. In addition, the vast majority of voters in the area believe the Bay can be saved, want their governments to invest in pollution reduction, and are willing to ‘foot the bill’ for a saved Chesapeake Bay. Finally, we thought we had the commitment needed to “Save the Bay.” The governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the Administrator of the EPA, the mayor of the District of Columbia, and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission signed an agreement in 2000 to reduce pollution enough
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