+ By Patty Speakman Hamsher + Photos by Russell Cather Levi
I jump in with a smile so wide that my teeth are unable to stop the water from rushing into my mouth, then my nose, and my open eyes, wide with the excitement that summer is here, that boating weather has come, that the icy winter has not destroyed the life that teems within these waters around me.
I am a child of the Chesapeake Bay. I have spent summers fishing and swimming and racing boats, kneeboards, and oversized inflatable tubes within her waters. I have sat at long tables covered with brown paper and cooked crab shell and oyster fragments plucked from her slow waves. I have ended waterfront days feeling sun kissed, water logged, and humbled by breathtaking sunsets that glow on the surface, just before the fireflies take over.
Yet, I am admittedly uneducated about the daily fight and struggles that lie below the Bay’s aqueous façade. In a water system that spans a massive 64,000 square miles of rivers, tributaries, and creeks that touch six states as well as the District of Columbia, it is not surprising that a healthy balance is a constant struggle for the creatures that live there.
“It took the Bay decades to decline,” says Tom Zolper, Maryland Communications Coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Pollution from the 17 million human beings living in the Bay watershed and ten times that number of livestock are the main threats to the Bay’s health. Exhaust from our cars and power plants, manure and fertilizer from our farms, pesticides from our lawns, and sewage from our treatment plants and septic systems have all contributed to the problem.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is committed to four basic strategies to Save the Bay™—they advocate, restore, educate, and, when all else fails, litigate. Founded in 1967 by a group of Baltimore businessmen, CBF came out of the need for private sector organization that could work on behalf of the Bay. The founding group was charged by then Congressman C.B. Morton to “build public concern, then encourage government and private citizens to deal with these problems together.”
Nearly 50 years later, the organization has grown from a membership of 2,000 to 200,000 people committed to the work that CBF does throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. This work is not done remotely from a bank of cubicles in a glass-windowed office space. CBF is a farm in Upper Marlboro that is a model of sustainable agriculture and a network of farmers who teach other farmers how to reduce pollution and increase profits; an oyster center in Shady Side where oysters are grown for building man-made reefs; a fleet of boats and remote education centers for hands-on Bay experiences and environmental literacy; and a grass roots army that advocates for legislation to improve the bay’s recovery at the local, state, and federal levels.
“We’re now in the long, gradual climb back to health,” Zolper says hopefully.
“We’ve cut pollution to the Bay almost in half over the past 20 years.” But scientists warn that we need to continue to drastically reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution in order for the fish, crab, and oyster populations to rebound and for our grandkids to have the opportunity to see their feet in the water as our grandparents did. “We also will have to grow smart, avoiding sprawl development, which adds new pollution and negates our work,” says Zolper.
To borrow the tried and true cliché of things that require a village to prosper, restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay is no exception. Over three hundred species of fish, numerous varieties of shellfish and crabs, land and submerged aquatic vegetation, and countless birds and land beasts depend on it, to say nothing of the surviving family traditions that either generates money or memories for one generation to pass on to the next.
CBF is devoted to restoring a national treasure that ripples with the wind and breathes life into the cities and towns that touch her fickle tides. With effort and the commitment of many, the restored health of our Chesapeake Bay will yield clear and healthy waters for many summers and generations of bay-loving children to come.
To learn more about the CBF’s efforts, visit www.cbf.org.