The Road to Bay RestorationBy C. Ronald Franks
When Governor Bob Ehrlich honored me with an appointment to his cabinet in January of 2003, I came to Annapolis full of vim and vigor. I was ready to take on, if not the world, then certainly anyone who stood in the way of the protection, restoration and management of Maryland's magnificent natural resources.

The Governor made it clear that restoring the Chesapeake Bay would be our number one priority. For me, that was already a given. My long-time love for fishing, boating and life on Maryland's beautiful Eastern Shore had left me well aware of the Bay's troubles, and chomping at the bit to find some solutions.

Today, a little more than a year later, neither my enthusiasm nor my commitment has waned. Still, I must admit that I have had quite an education along this rocky road to Bay restoration.

It's all about science
The first commitment I made - to the Governor, to my DNR colleagues and to the citizens of Maryland - was that sound science would guide our actions. Sure, it sounds like a no-brainer. However, in a region where the environment, economy, quality of life, and even educational opportunities are tied to a shared resource, rest assured that everyone, good intentions or otherwise, has his or her own agenda. When that resource is as vast as the Chesapeake Bay...

So, in order to work within the bounds of sound science, I set out to learn everything I could about the Bay. During the past hundred years, the health of the Bay has slowly declined - water quality has suffered to the point where marine life is becoming more and more difficult to sustain to the point where the "great shellfish Bay" now barely provides an annual oyster harvest.

During the past 20 years, significant, continuous attempts have been made to turn things around. Yet despite all the effort and money, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual Bay report card gave the Bay's health a score of 27 out of 100 - a failing grade in anyone's book.

Why? We believe too many small, disparate efforts, and not enough of the large-scale, focused work that is required.

Like the seat of a three-legged stool, Chesapeake Bay restoration rests on three sturdy and equally important foundations: Restoring a healthy oyster population, replenishing Bay grasses, and reducing the nutrients that run into the Bay.


Chesapeake Bay restoration rests on three sturdy and equally important foundations:  Restoring a healthy oyster population, replenishing Bay grasses, and reducing the nutrients that run into the Bay.


Oysters
The first leg of the Chesapeake Bay restoration stool is rebuilding the oyster population.

In the late 1800s, the Chesapeake's oyster population could filter the entire volume of the Bay in just over three days. Today, it takes more than three years. The reason is our declining oyster population.

OystersAt its peak in 1885, Marylander's oyster harvest was 15 million bushels; this year, it will be closer to 15 thousand bushels.

Initially, overfishing caused a population decrease, ultimately stabilized by new regulations.

Then, in the 1950s, the diseases Dermo and MSX began attacking native oysters in the lower Bay. Today, every oyster bar is infected, and 90 percent of the oysters in Maryland die by the age of three.

Sadly, the native oyster's steady decline continues, despite a significant financial investment -$8 million last year alone.

One promising solution - the feasibility of introducing a non-native oyster into the Bay - is currently under study. State and federal agencies are supporting a variety of studies, and Maryland and Virginia have entered into an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete an Environmental Impact Statement.

So far, Crassostrea ariakensis, (Asian oysters) the species being studied, appears resistant to the diseases that are decimating our native oysters. They also grow bigger and faster, meaning earlier results from filtering water and an economic boost as they get to market sooner.

If the science deems it safe, Governor Ehrlich and DNR will take a giant step in Bay restoration by authorizing the introduction of Asian oysters into Maryland waters.

Bay Grasses
The second leg of the Bay restoration stool is Bay grass replenishment.

Bay grasses are essential to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. They provide a nursery and habitat for all kinds of aquatic life, introduce life saving oxygen into the water, and help prevent erosion by reducing wave action. DNR and others have spent years attempting to restore Bay grasses. Community groups, school children and countless others volunteer their time and energy to grow and plant grasses throughout the Bay and its tributaries.

A big threat to Bay grasses right now is the invasive mute swan. The Bay's current population of about 3,600 birds collectively eats 5,000 tons of grasses each year. If their numbers are not reduced, the population could grow to consume 30,000 tons of grasses each year - grasses essential to the Bay's revival. (Did I mention these aggressive birds also attack people, pets and other wild animals while destroying the habitat of native waterfowl and aquatic life?)

An illustration of the BayStill, Bay grass restoration on a large scale is expensive and time-consuming. At DNR, we're currently investigating innovative funding sources, evaluating new technologies, and seeking new partners to get large-scale restoration underway.

Nutrient Reduction
The third leg of the Bay restoration stool is reducing nutrients runoff.

Nutrients, like those found in fertilizer are good for growing vegetation, but bad for waterway health. Once in they find their way to the Chesapeake Bay -- via runoff and sewage treatment plant effluent - they can cause huge algae blooms thereby sucking up the Bay's oxygen and threatening Bay grasses and aquatic life.

DNR already works in cooperation with federal and state agencies to encourage landowners to plant buffers along the shoreline, and offers program assistance for those who do. These buffers slow down the runoff and absorb much of the harmful nutrients.

To reduce the amount of nutrients in sewage treatment plant effluent, significant upgrades to 66 Maryland plants need to be made.

At this writing, Governor Ehrlich's environmental legislative package includes a proposal to acquire funding for increasing sewage treatment plant efficiency by adding a dedicated fee for water usage.

What's next
Sound science has identified the components necessary for a restored Chesapeake Bay - more oysters and Bay grasses, less nutrient runoff. The Governor's environmental legislative package could result in enhanced agricultural buffer programs, upgraded sewage treatment upgrades, and new sources for restoration funding. In addition, the State of Maryland is supporting further scientific study in areas such as non-native oysters. And DNR staff are working diligently to develop the partners, technologies, funding sources and public interest that will allow us to reverse the Bay's continuing decline.

In upcoming issues, I will continue to use this forum to let Marylanders know how we're progressing along the arduous yet exciting road to Bay restoration.

In the meantime, I hope we can take heart in these facts: Governor Ehrlich and I have pledged to Maryland citizens that we will leave our natural resources better off than they were when we found them. You have an incredibly talented, bright and dedicated team at DNR working to ensure we fulfill that pledge.

For more information on 2004 Legislation, the Road to Bay Restoration and other hot topics, visit the IN FOCUS section at www.dnr.maryland.gov

C. Ronald Franks was appointed Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources by Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., on January 20, 2003.


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