Chesapeake Bay Blues

Published August 1, 2003

Chesapeake Bay Blues: Science, Politics, and the Struggle to Save the Bay
by Howard R. Ernst
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003, 224 pages
$22.95 paperback

Howard Ernst is an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, which might explain the scientific and political biases evident in this very interesting book … but it does not.

One would expect a Naval officer to be conservative, but clearly Ernst is a liberal. One would expect a political scientist to be weak on environmental science, but this is actually Ernst’s greater strength. He does a marvelous job of accurately defining the Chesapeake Bay and its physical, chemical, and biological inputs and outputs.

Historical Reality

However, after describing 30 years of multi-government failure to protect the Bay, Ernst nevertheless insists greater centralized government control, rather than domestic and industrial incentives, is the way to achieve eventual improvement. He sounds much like other liberal politicians who, in spite of the 70-year failed experiment of command-and-control government in the Soviet Union, are certain they can “get it right” this time in the United States.

Ernst has provided an excellent history of natural resource conservation. He explains that as far back as 1651, William Penn decreed that for every five acres of land cleared in Pennsylvania, one acre must be left in its natural state. Early in the 18th century, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York had passed laws protecting wild game. Long before Earth Day–when the environmental movement began to evolve into a liberal political movement–our nation cared deeply for its natural resources.

Ernst sees environmental protection as a tug of war between industrial interests and public good. He sides with those who believe environmental threats cannot be solved through private actions.

“Since 1970,” Ernst writes, “environmental politics has become an institutionalized part of American political life at every level of government.” He fails to recognize, however, that the environment was the loser in this marriage. Politics, far more than concern for the environment, has come to drive most environmental decision-making, with disappointing and sometimes disastrous results.

Chesapeake Bay Facts

The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries cover more than 4,500 square miles (which is not 41 million acres, as the author asserts, but just under 3 million acres) and are estimated to include 18 trillion gallons of water. The Bay is 200 miles long and 35 miles across at its widest point. It has 11,700 miles of shoreline. Its watershed covers 64,000 square miles in six different states (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia), with 150 rivers and streams draining the area.

The Bay itself is a relatively shallow body of water, averaging less than 21 feet in depth, with nearly 200,000 acres less than 6 feet deep. As with all bays that meet the ocean, it has a salinity gradient from fresh to salty, which creates a variety of excellent fishing opportunities, the most prominent of which is the famous blue crab, to which the author devotes nearly a third of the book.

Too Many Cooks

Virtually no one at any point on the political spectrum has been satisfied with efforts to keep the best quality of water flowing into the Bay. The watershed’s population has nearly doubled, from 8 to 15 million people, in the past 50 years, and the environmental pressures are great.

Since 1983, when the Environmental Protection Agency initiated a major Chesapeake Bay program, $282 million in federal funds have gone to a variety of state, local, and non-governmental organizations to facilitate cleaning and protecting the Bay. In addition, each of the six Bay-area states contributes significant funds for the same purpose. Maryland leads the way, with current annual expenditures of $630 million.

The old adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” is the controlling factor in 30 years of chaos and failure to effectively protect the Bay. Diverse business, industrial, domestic, environmental, and political interests are represented by myriad political entities, producing gridlock and waste. Still, Ernst insists throughout that command-and-control politics can be the eventual solution.

Seeking Balance

From a scientific standpoint, management of the Bay is not rocket science. In its natural state the system worked remarkably well.

Nutrients from forest land entered the Bay through its tributaries, feeding a healthy population of phytoplankton and underwater grasses, which in turn supplied a prolific food chain of aquatic life. But with increasing human population and the expansion of the area’s agriculture and industry, nutrient input has led to massive increases in nitrogen and phosphorus, which have overwhelmed the ecosystem.

In his more objective moments, Ernst accurately defines the problems and technical solutions. Among the key issues he recognizes:

  • How can the Bay’s blue crabs be saved … without harming the men who harvest them?
  • How can nutrient levels in the Bay be reduced … without adversely affecting agriculture?
  • How can environmental impacts be reduced … without stifling growth and real estate prices?
  • How can sewage treatment plants be improved … without bankrupting local governments?
  • How can the Bay’s restoration be funded … without derailing the region’s economy?

While he is extremely harsh on agriculture’s role in upsetting the balance of the Bay, Ernst proposes solutions that would be reasonable and effective. They include forest and grass buffers along streams, conservation tillage and cover crops, contour farming, fertilizer management plans, retirement of erodable land, stream protection from livestock by fencing, and improved animal waste management.

For reduction of human inputs into the Bay, Ernst calls for sensible phosphate-free detergents, biological nutrient removal systems at sewage treatment plants, more efficient septic systems, emission control technologies, and animal feed additives to improve waste composition.

Unfortunately, Ernst also espouses myriad wrong headed “smart-growth” policies that serve only to obstruct individual freedom, increase the cost of housing, and do nothing to improve the quality of the environment.

Head in the Sand

Ernst narrates like an ostrich whose head is buried in the sand … or a Naval officer barricaded behind the stone walls of Annapolis. He calls for environmental groups to rise up and take aim at alleged evils being perpetrated on the Bay by industry. What else have the liberal environmental scaremongers been doing the past two decades, if not exactly that?

He praises and calls for more rapid implementation of EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TDML) component of the revised Clean Water Act, which most sensible people wish would go away. The TDML provision was slipped into the Act a few years ago through legislative legerdemain by the Clinton administration after open debate on the bill had ended. It created a bureaucratic morass and data-gathering nightmare that does nothing more than increase the power of government while reducing the rights of its citizens.

Sadly, the author’s concluding “ten measures to improve politics for the Bay” are shortsighted and wrongheaded socialistic rhetoric. They will lead to 30 more years of ineffective efforts to protect Chesapeake Bay.

My very critical view of the author’s myopia aside, Ernst has done a good service for all of us interested in the Chesapeake Bay by telling its fascinating story.

Dr. Jay Lehr is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].