(Dan Wittenberg)

Dan Wittenberg bought about 13 acres of land in the Potomac River flood zone in St. Mary’s County because of his love of sailing and windsurfing. Eight years ago, with no special real estate or construction skills, Wittenberg built an 800-square-foot cottage there (the maximum permissible on that 566,000 square foot lot). Now he’s chronicling his attempt to build something special that will pass regulators’ muster on a just-purchased one-third of an acre waterfront parcel next door. This is his fifth installment.

While still deep in the before-even-applying-for-a-building permit stage of this project, I’m already spending a considerable amount of effort to comply with the myriad state and county regulations concerning the performance of any construction-related work whatsoever along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

My reward at the end of this very bureaucratic oversight process will be spending a considerable amount of money to actually do the pretty mundane backhoe and dump truck task of removing the man-made debris littering my waterfront and replacing it with a “greener” sort of sea defense and erosion control. No doubt it will feel like a major victory — even if it’s only an uncontested preliminary bout.

So this seems like an appropriate moment to explore whether all these tedious rules are genuinely contributing to our region’s commendable “Save The Bay” goal or merely consuming time while expensively “paper-whipping” the problem.

As an impatient landowner with a poison pen, my opinion on this topic will never be as credible as that of an impartial scientist with a PhD. Fortunately, my friend and neighbor, Bruce Beehler, happens to be just such a naturalist. Professionally, he’s an ornithologist whose area of expertise is the tropical birds of New Guinea. That’s a whole bunch of biomes and a few species removed from the ecology of the beleaguered Bay in our own back yard.

Nevertheless, Beehler gamely agreed to attempt a simple explanation of what’s behind the complex problems facing our local estuary (the country’s largest). These 400-or-less, mostly jargon-free and understandable words are my “sound bite” take-away from that enlightening conversation.

For years, the Chesapeake Bay has been experiencing a steady decline in both the number of species that inhabit it as well as the size and health of the remaining populations. The scientific explanation for the problem is there is too much “non-point specific, farm-related effluents containing excessive nutrients” in the waterway. That simply means there’s too much poop there.

These excess nutrients mostly come in the form of animal waste and agricultural fertilizer (often the same thing since that’s what organic fertilizer is) which runs off farms and then drains, septic tank-like, into the Chesapeake Bay from throughout its enormous, six-state watershed.

The word nutrients, of course, sounds not only benign but positively healthful — something that should make things grow rather than die. And, indeed, the Bay’s algae do thrive on this nutritious diet to the extent that they can now suck enough oxygen out of the Bay’s water to suffocate any animals that happen to be in the neighborhood during of one of their algal blooms.

Fortified by this unholy dietary supplement, the swarming algae (suspended in the water along with fine silt from eroded topsoil) further shortstop the nourishing sunlight intended for the lawns of sea grass on the Bay’s floor — the place where fish spawn that form the basis of the Bay’s entire ecosystem. This combination of scum and sediment is also the reason our Bay isn’t as gin-clear as the Caribbean. Unbelievably (and sadly), it used to be clear and it used to support Caribbean-sized fish, too.

Beehler summed up the current state of affairs with the lament: “You know you’ve really got a serious problem when even the oysters and the blue crabs can no longer make a living here.” He says that because those tasty bottom feeders are the Bay’s waste eaters (more politely called detritivores) who consider everybody else’s poop to be their haute cuisine. That questionable dining preference filtered the Bay for everyone until those hearty bivalve and crustacean trenchermen too became overfished and then overcome.

It’s certainly a vicious cycle rooted in the too many people (17 million of them, all of whom need to eat) and too many chickens and cows (far more than humans and all of whom need to excrete before becoming McNuggets and Whoppers) living, working and farming within the too many political jurisdictions that comprise the Bay’s 64,000 square mile drainage basin. Biologically speaking, the Bay’s decline is apparently reversible (according to Beehler) but only if given enough political will and public goodwill (which is, according to me, a very problematic alliance to bet on).

Obviously, since I’m neither raising poultry nor grazing cattle (and haven’t applied for a septic permit) it’s doubtful whether even a whole army of bureaucrats micromanaging the clean up of my little lot’s shoreline will make any difference at all in curing the Bay of its very real ills. The emphasis of all that political will should really be targeted a little farther upstream and appropriately address the much more fundamental and difficult issues involved — the proper use and disposal of the watershed’s 44 million tons of manure each year.

Yet, even such misdirected regulation is probably better than none at all. If this elaborate (and perhaps absurd) permitting process somehow prevents any of the Bay’s remaining “rural” land (for the barn door already long ago closed on the adjective “pristine” around here) from becoming colonized by walls of condominiums and oversized beach houses (a la Kent Island or Annapolis) I’m more than happy to put up with the frustration and just continue to grumble.

I should have that first permit any month now.

Read Dan Wittenberg’s previous posts:

Creating a living shoreline is key to Potomac project

Passing muster on septic is first step in winning approval for flood zone project

Pontoon house? Stilt house? Geodesic dome? ISO ideas to develop flood zone.

The quest to build something very cool in a very hazardous area