The Chesapeake Bay, Scenic and Unhealthy

Commentator Terry Smith extols the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay in spring. But he is also forced to lament the bay's sad decline.

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The Chesapeake Bay is the nation's largest estuary. It's a place where a fertile mix of ocean and river waters has created a rich habitat for fish and blue crabs, and a vast playground for boaters and tourists. Indeed, economists say the bay's natural riches help pump up to a trillion dollars annually into the national economy.

Commentator Terry Smith says the bay also has immense aesthetic value, especially in the spring. But he worries that it is a beauty that hides serious problems.

Mr. TERRY SMITH (commentator) Spring is unfolding on the Chesapeake Bay. The ospreys have returned from their winter holidays in Central and South America. The tundra swans are getting ready to head north to Hudson Bay. Lust-filled yellow perch are racing up the rivers to spawn.

And in Annapolis, the boat bums down at the Boatyard Bar and Grill have held their annual sock-burning ritual.

When Bob Gallagher(ph), the river keeper on the West and Rhode Rivers sets out on patrol in his red-hulled skiff in the early morning, I can see him outside my front window. The water is glassy, smooth and gorgeous, his wake white against the deep blue.

That's the problem with the Chesapeake. It's so damned beautiful. That beauty masks the problems that lie beneath the surface. You'd never know, looking at it, that vast stretches are dead zones where there's not enough oxygen to support life. You'd never know, looking at it, that the legendary crab and oyster populations are a fraction of what they used to be. You'd never guess that the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest and once most productive estuary, is dying.

You'd certainly never know it from the headlines over the years in which political leaders declare their determination to clean up the bay. Beginning in 1987 and repeatedly every few years since, the politicians who govern Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia have gotten together and promised to redouble their efforts.

Let's make the Chesapeake Bay the model for the country, they say. If we can salvage the bay, we can do the same for the Gulf of Mexico, for San Francisco Bay, you name it.

It'll cost money, of course, big money. A blue ribbon panel studied the matter and came up with a figure: $15 billion to clean up the sewage plants and eliminate the agricultural runoff and still accommodate the 100,000 new residents who settle along the Chesapeake's fragile shorelines every year.

To illustrate the problem, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation rates the health of the bay each year on a scale of 100. Currently, say the scientists, the index stands at 27.

Next year is the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first successful European settlement in this country. Captain John Smith and his men settled the Chesapeake and explored its rivers and tributaries and drew a remarkably accurate map that guided settlement for the next century. In his journal, Smith wrote, heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation.

I wonder what Captain Smith would think if he could come back today and see what man has done to this very goodly bay, as he called it, in the last four centuries. Especially in the springtime, as the trees begin to green, he might be fooled by the beauty of it all, but not for long.

NORRIS: Commentator Terry Smith lives on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

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