WASHINGTON – In the 40 years since Earth Day was first declared, environmental protection has moved to the forefront of the nation’s issues — recycling is the norm, hybrid cars and “green living” are the hottest trend, and governments have poured money and man-hours into cleaning the Earth.
Yet, after four decades of environmental consciousness, the pollution problems and poor water quality in the Chesapeake Bay persist.
The major problem isn’t a lack of effort: There have been various state and federal environmental mandates, such as the Clean Water Act and President Obama’s Executive Order, hard work from environmental scientists and regulations placed on bay fisherman.
The big problem, environmental scientists said, is that the region is growing too big for the bay.
“So we’re better off probably by a long shot than if you didn’t have the Chesapeake Bay Program and if you didn’t have all citizen activists like the Bay Foundation, the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay and other organizations that have been pushing people to participate and take care of their environment,” said Kent Mountford, a former Bay Program environmental scientist.
“All those things help, but the number of people coming in and the people coming in “unsaved” who have not heard the message about how important the bay is…the growth of residential economic development interests, the creation of impervious surfaces in the basin,” Mountford said. “All those things continued to increase and pretty much kept pace with the good works we were able to do.”
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the number of people living in the bay watershed has increased from 11.8 million to almost 17 million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Bay Program.
“That huge area now has 17 million people living in it, and it’s more than the estuary can stand. Simple as that,” Mountford said.
Mountford is not the only one to hold this belief. Thomas Pheiffer, a retired Environmental Protection Agency scientist who worked on bay issues from 1972 to 2005 out of Annapolis, saw the urbanization hit the area in the mid-’70s and witnessed the impact it had on the bay.
Public education, new water-testing technologies, as well as the money invested in bay restoration has helped fight the “population problem,” Pheiffer said.
“We’re doing our best to break even with the increases in the population,” Pheiffer said. “And even though we’re doing more with the practices…(the pollution) all goes somewhere and it goes in the creeks.”
Mountford pointed out that while the consensus about bay health in the 1960s was that it was “pretty good,” in the 1970s two major disasters hit the watershed that changed that way of thinking.
Hurricane Agnes hit the south in 1972 and pummeled the Chesapeake Bay region as a tropical storm. Mountford said the result of the disaster was “a tremendous kick in the butt for the whole natural system.”
Mountford said his friends were finding paintings from homes in Harrisburg, Pa., washing up on the beach in Calvert County. He also said that most of the grasses in the bay, “the great underwater meadows that had been so important,” died.
Around the same time, the diseases MSX and Dermo attacked oyster populations, and they “really knocked oysters for a loop,” Mountford said.
“So 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.
Tom Horton, a retired Baltimore Sun reporter and a bay author, said that following Earth Day there was a much stronger political commitment to cleaning up the environment, but that movement has diminished now.
“Maybe we found out it was a lot harder than we thought,” Horton said.
Horton also said that the people who remember a cleaner bay are getting older and his concern is that commitment to get back to something historical is not as strong as a commitment to get back to something that you used to catch.
“It may have just come to the point where you kind of just settle for what you got, which is that worst you could think of,” Horton said. “We can’t just go on like we’ve been going on.”
Mountford worked for the Bay Program from 1984 to 2000, but has been an estuarine scientist on the Chesapeake Bay for almost 40 years.
“We really believed that we could save the Chesapeake Bay if the public would commit the resources, and intellectual power, and the willingness to change lifestyles,” Mountford said. “That’s the whole thing of Earth Day — that people need to recognize that we must be stewards of the Earth, that very key process. And people haven’t.”