Anyone who claims to care about Chesapeake Bay should read "Chesapeake Bay Blues" by Howard R. Ernst, a Naval Academy political science professor who in 145 pages squelches any lingering optimism about the future of the nation's largest and once most productive estuary.
Ernst offers a withering look at where the bay is and where it's headed, copiously supported by 58 pages of appendixes, notes and references. It's a scholarly work, darkly pessimistic, the kind of project nobody in his right mind would tackle for profit, which is why he says nothing like it has been done before.
"I'd have made more money looking for quarters on the sidewalk," said Ernst, a Florida native who earned his doctorate at the University of Virginia. Fortunately for him, as a new hire at the Academy he got paid through his first three summers to pursue independent research. He chose the bay.
The upshot is the first serious look at the Chesapeake that targets with precision what Ernst considers the real problem: politics, and the unwillingness of the public, business, industry, science, environmentalists or the government at any level to acknowledge the complexity and severity of the issues and deal with them realistically.
By Ernst's assessment, almost nothing measurable is getting better on the Chesapeake and much is getting progressively worse. Meantime, environmental, government and private organizations defuse public criticism by trumpeting nonexistent or incremental improvements while wasting time and money on studies and reports to back their claims.
Ernst trains his sights on the Environmental Protection Agency in particular, on natural resource agencies in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and on agribusiness, industries and land developers throughout the six-state bay watershed. Notably, he takes aim at a hitherto untouchable icon of the environmental movement, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which Ernst maintains has failed in its stated mission to "save the bay."
In a subsection entitled: "Advocate or Abdicate," Ernst says of CBF:
"The group enjoys the support of roughly 100,000 dues-paying members . . . and annual revenues that have topped $20 million in recent years."
Yet, he writes, it "engages in relatively modest lobbying activities, operates no political action committees and offers no political endorsements. The group has also chosen not to engage in issue advertisement campaigns that could apply public pressure to key policymakers," and "has been reluctant to pursue the foundation's environmental objectives through the court system, considering this approach a last resort. . . . "
Will Baker, the CBF's chief executive officer for 23 years, says of Ernst's book, "We agree with all his observations except what he has to say about us. We told him that from the beginning. From the day this organization started till today, we have taken controversial positions."
Still, says Baker of Ernst, "We feel he's doing a great thing for the bay. Most of what he says, you could take from the CBF handbook."
Sadly, the feeling isn't mutual. "Will Baker is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation," says Ernst. "The organization is a reflection of his ethics, his values. He's a very nice guy, but the Chesapeake Bay doesn't need a nice guy. Here's what Bruce Babbitt, the former Interior Secretary, had to say at a national environmental conference at the University of Miami a year and a half ago: He said what the Chesapeake Bay needs more than anything else is an ill-tempered environmental group that's willing to sue to save the bay."
While Ernst applauds CBF's educational programs, under which tens of thousands of school kids study the bay's resources and problems annually, he says that meantime the other side is winning the war with aggressive tactics.
"When [poultry dynasty] Perdue wants to fight an agriculture ruling," he says, "they don't go out and form an educational unit to teach kids about chicken farms. They hire a lawyer. When land developers want to fight critical areas laws, they get lawyers and go to court. When [Baltimore] Mayor O'Malley wants to fight demands for sewer improvements he feels he can't afford, he gets a lawyer."
Ernst's book is a fast and engaging read. I picked it up before a transatlantic flight and wound up staying up all night reading. He paints a clear picture of what the bay was and what it is. There are few bright spots, if any.
Bay grasses have all but disappeared; nutrient loads are 10 times what they were; algae blooms block sunlight and gobble oxygen; oxygen-less summer "dead zones" are big and growing; sturgeon are gone, shad, once the No. 1 bay finfish, are all but gone, as are soft clams and oysters; crabs are teetering on a perilous edge; rockfish pop up with mysterious sores; menhaden, top food source for many predator finfish, are plundered by the ton for cat food and oil; weird toxins such as pfiesteria bloom unexpectedly; the bay turns brown; a billion and a half gallons of the fresh water flow down the bay every day from sewage treatment plants.
It makes you want to say, "Yuk."
It would take billions of dollars more than anyone proposes to spend to set things right, says Ernst. But instead of facing up to the problem, agencies and organizations instead nuance their reports to deflect criticism. He's particularly critical of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, which he says has underestimated nutrient pollution, the bay's top environmental problem, by tweaking numbers in its computer models.
Says Ernst: "I see the Chesapeake Bay today as the cleanest it will be for the rest of our lives, and I see no trend to change that. They're building condos in Crisfield; guys who were watermen there are delivering pizzas in Ocean City. People are getting fatigued and the ones who should be fighting the hardest are aggressively defending the status quo.
"I can't imagine a system that would be better at quelling public discontent and perpetuating the status quo than the one in place," he says. "It's mind-boggling."
"Chesapeake Bay Blues: Science, Politics and the Struggle to Save the Bay" is $22.95 in paperback, $60 hardcover from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 4501 Forbes Blvd. Suite 200, Lanham, Md. 20706. Web site: www.rowmanlittlefield.com.