- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 26, 2009

After a recent rain, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was clogged with an eclectic combination of garbage - soda bottles and a large purple ball, sticks and dirt, candy wrappers and a hollowed-out television.

They are emblems of the larger problem.

“The Bay right now has more dead water than it ever has - and that’s from the waterman’s experience, not from a scientific viewpoint,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

For more than 30 years, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District, among others, have worked under voluntary agreements to promote the health of the Chesapeake Bay with little to show for their efforts. In May, President Obama ordered the federal government to expand its role in cleaning the Bay and put the Environmental Protection Agency at the forefront of the effort.

And while experts agree the Chesapeake is nowhere close to cleanliness, they often disagree on what standards define the Bay’s health.

Beth McGee, a senior water quality scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that two important elements of a clean Bay would be increased dissolved oxygen content, or a lack of dead zones, and clearer water. That would enable submerged aquatic grasses, “the meadows of the Bay,” to grow and shelter aquatic life.

“It’s where you’d be able to go out in shallow water and see your toes instead of murkiness,” Ms. McGee said. “That’s what a restored Bay is, you know? Clear water.”

Frank Dawson, assistant secretary for aquatic resources at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said controlling nutrient input is the most important element to cleaning the Bay.

“A cleaned-up Chesapeake Bay is a system that is in balance, as in there aren’t too many nutrients, there isn’t too much sediment entering the Bay. It’s one in which we have restored habitats from oyster reefs to submerged aquatic vegetation [or] Bay grasses - where there are an abundance of wetlands … along the shorelines,” Mr. Dawson said.

Tommy Landers, a policy advocate for the environmental advocacy organization Environment Maryland, said a clean Bay would be one that Marylanders and Virginians could be proud of.

“A clean Bay will have water that everybody can swim in, anywhere in the Bay, without any threat of getting sick - where anybody can fish in and be confident that they can bring up crabs and oysters and fish, that they can be confident are not diseased,” he said.

When John Smith traveled the Bay 400 years ago, he wrote that oysters “lay as thick as stones,” and that sturgeon were plentiful - “more than could be devoured by dog or man.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever return to how pristine the Bay was a couple hundred years ago,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat. “That’s not our goal. The goal is to have a Bay that is healthy to use for recreation. A Bay that is healthy to our species, including our favorites like the rockfish and the blue crab.”

Ms. McGee said she is hopeful recent Bay cleanup efforts will achieve those goals.

“It’s an exciting time right now in Bay restoration. … There’s a lot of complementary things that are going on right now,” she said, referring to Mr. Obama’s executive order, as well as related bills and efforts by the EPA.

Mr. Cardin is circulating a bill for discussion that would make the Chesapeake Bay executive order into law to prevent its provisions from being changed or rescinded when the administration changes.

He plans to introduce the bill in October. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, plans to introduce a companion bill in the House.

“I happen to agree with President Obama that the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and it needs to be treated as such,” Mr. Cardin said, referencing language in the executive order.

Mr. Dawson agreed that cleaning up the Bay would take time - certainly more than four or even eight years.

“It took a significant amount of time to get the Bay to where it is today,” he said. “It’s not going to be fixed overnight.”

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