A scientist, a former waterman and a dentist turned secretary of the Department of Natural Resources went to St. Mary's College of Maryland on Thursday afternoon to answer this question: "The Chesapeake Bay: Crisis or Crossroads?"
Robert W. Paul, a St. Mary's College biology professor, set the tone for the panel discussion, describing the ravages of sewage treatment plant effluents, storm-water runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous, shoreline erosion and the over-harvesting of oysters.
"I'd like to be an optimist, but I tend to be a pessimist," Paul said. "I think we're past crisis."
Jack Russell of St. George Island, a former waterman who runs an environmental program for students and is campaigning for a seat on the St. Mary's Board of County Commissioners, continued in that vein. He described his dismay at watching his once-bountiful oyster harvests in the 1980s being depleted to the point that he abandoned the business. The problems don't end there, he said.
"We've got snakeheads, we've got algal blooms, we've got a lot of stuff we never figured we'd ever have," he said in the auditorium at the college's Campus Center. "It's going to take a lot of political will to turn this stuff around."
C. Ronald Franks, appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in 2003 to lead the Department of Natural Resources, struck a more positive note. He conceded that the bay's health "is a crisis in a lot of ways" but said that the administration is committed to improvement.
Franks highlighted a new five-year, $19.4 million project to restore one of the bay's tributaries, the Corsica River on Maryland's Eastern Shore, by reducing pollution and restoring bay grasses and the native oyster population.
"We're monitoring the Corsica like no other river has ever been monitored before in Maryland," he said, describing the three or four monitoring stations in the river that will provide real-time data to state regulators about the water quality. "This initiative is a very bold, very sweeping initiative."
Franks said it would cost about $10 billion to $11 billion to restore Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay -- "not chump change," as he characterized it -- so it is important to focus on a limited 24,000-acre area first to see what results are possible. He said the goal is to have the river taken off the Environmental Protection Agency's list of impaired waterways. Democrats have criticized the project as too narrow to aid the bay overall.
In the auditorium, filled with more than 150 people, audience members questioned the significance of the Corsica project.
"It doesn't look to me like such a bold pilot project," one man told Franks, adding that much pollution comes from runoff from poultry farms, some of which have not complied with rules mandating pollution mitigation plans. He also said the project was not fully funded. "It sounds to me like a PR stunt."
Franks rejected that assertion. "It is not a political stunt or a ruse at all. It is a genuine attempt to put in place all of what science tells us has to be in place to actually improve the water quality," he said, acknowledging that the project is short $5.6 million.
Paul, who has studied water quality in the St. Mary's River, which borders the college campus, said urbanization of shoreline areas is the main threat to the health of local waters. He said that state environmental enforcement officers are stretched too thin to catch all the problems and that the decisions that most effect the waterways are made by county governments.
Said Russell, "We've got to have the political will to grab the bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground."
The panel discussion was hosted by the college's SlackWater Center, a research consortium focused on local environmental and cultural issues, as well as the school's Center for the Study of Democracy.