Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that his administration is developing several significant initiatives aimed at restoring the long-term health of the Chesapeake Bay, and his goal is to extend the state's efforts well beyond his recently approved program to upgrade sewage treatment plants.
"We've stopped the bleeding," Ehrlich (R) said. "But that's not enough. We need to do more than maintain an uneven status quo. We need to move forward."
Ehrlich's pledge came in an interview on the grassy shoreline of the Patuxent River at Broomes Island, as he prepared to wade into the chilly gray waters with former state senator C. Bernie Fowler, a Calvert County Democrat. The "wade-in" is a homespun, annual political event that Fowler first organized 16 years ago to draw attention to the declining health of the Patuxent and the Chesapeake Bay.
The governor has become a regular at the event, which Maryland's environmental leaders consider a crucial yearly reminder about the dire condition of the bay. While many yardsticks are more accurate, on this day, the health of the Patuxent is measured by how deep the 80-year-old Fowler can wade before he loses sight of his white sneakers.
Historical accounts from 175 years ago suggest watermen could see critters on the river floor at a depth of 30 feet. Yesterday, Fowler was in up to his thigh, in water of 311/2 inches, when the murk obscured the view of his shoes.
"It is not a very scientific measure," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who also joined Fowler. "But it has focused us all, not just on how deep we can see, but on how far we have come."
The truth, according to several researchers who were on hand yesterday, is that efforts of the past two decades have not produced significant progress. Former governor Harry R. Hughes said that when his administration began its bay restoration efforts in 1979, officials knew it would not work overnight.
"We thought maybe it would take 10 years," he said at yesterday's event. "The fact that we're still not there, it's distressing."
Ehrlich said the intractable nature of the problem weighs on him.
"It's a major burden," he said. "I was convinced coming into office that the bay was at a tipping point. Since getting into office, this issue has taken up much more of my time and attention than I ever would have guessed."
Ehrlich did not elaborate on his plans for cleaning up the bay but said one "major policy decision" he expects to make soon is whether to move forward with the introduction of Asian oysters into the bay for breeding, a controversial step that he said he is considering with guidance from scientists.
The region's native oyster population has been decimated by disease and over-harvesting. In the past 20 years, dwindling stocks have caused the harvest value of the Chesapeake's native oyster to plummet nearly 90 percent. With the oyster's decline, the bay has lost a tremendous filter. The mollusks, once so plentiful that ships ran aground on their reefs, used to purify all the water in the bay in three days.
Yesterday, scientists from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons took Fowler, Hughes, Hoyer, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and other officials out onto the river to see the decline for themselves. They dragged a bucket along the Broomes Island bar, once an abundant source of oysters, and pulled up three living bivalves, where once they would have snatched dozens.
It was, Mikulski observed, a distressing demonstration. "We have to have new ideas," she said. "Time is not on our side."
Maryland's environmental leaders said they welcomed Ehrlich's commitment to do more. Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker said he and others applauded the governor for backing a $30-a-year sewer and septic surcharge to pay for the modernization of 65 of the state's largest treatment plants. But they have wondered whether the governor would end his efforts there.
"The legislation he introduced is one of the most important environmental bills of the past 20 years," Baker said. "But we have more work for him."