Chesapeake Bay Dead Zones Are Fading, But Proposed EPA Cuts Threaten Success After years of failed attempts at cleaning up the dead zones, the Chesapeake Bay, once a national disgrace, is teeming with wildlife again. But success is fragile, and it might be even more so now.
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Chesapeake Bay Dead Zones Are Fading, But Proposed EPA Cuts Threaten Success

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Chesapeake Bay Dead Zones Are Fading, But Proposed EPA Cuts Threaten Success

Chesapeake Bay Dead Zones Are Fading, But Proposed EPA Cuts Threaten Success

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Summer on the Chesapeake Bay is in full swing.


SHAPIRO: We're in Maryland. We came here to find out what decades of work and hundreds of millions of dollars have done to clean up this body of water and to look at what might happen to it under a new administration. This boat belongs to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

BETH MCGEE: What a beautiful day.

SHAPIRO: Researcher Beth McGee is on board with us and glad that she's not behind a desk.

MCGEE: Yeah, I used to be a real scientist and get out in the bay a lot more. But I get out personally, so that makes up for it.

SHAPIRO: She moved to this area in the 1980s when factories were still dumping waste into the bay and farmers were filling the water with fertilizer. Oysters were scarce. Crabs were hard to find. But today, things have improved in ways you can see and ways you cannot.

Hey there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How's it going?

SHAPIRO: We pull our boat up alongside three young guys drawing blue crabs out of the water on a long line. Matt Gaskins is 22 years old and grew up around here. He gives us a peek inside his bucket.

They're clearly feisty. They're snapping at the mike, and you can tell why they're called blue crabs. They're bright, bright blue. So you live around here. Do you go crabbing every summer?

MATT GASKINS: Yes, yeah.

SHAPIRO: How is this summer looking?

GASKINS: It's really good this year. Everyone pretty much around the whole river has been doing really well.

SHAPIRO: Can you pretty much tell whether the bay is doing well or not by whether you're catching crabs or not?

GASKINS: Yeah, definitely. I think last year, there was a ton of grasses. Like, the rockfish are doing really well this year, and also the crabs are doing really well, so...

SHAPIRO: And you know that more grasses means more crabs.

GASKINS: Yeah, typically, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Those are the visible ways the bay's health is improving.

Hey, good luck, guys.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Thanks, guys.

SHAPIRO: Next, we set out to measure some of the less visible ways deep under the surface. We motor out to where the water is around 35 feet. We're looking for a dead zone. When there's no oxygen dissolved in the water, fish and crabs can't survive. Dr. Beth McGee explains that can be caused by fertilizer runoff and other pollution.

MCGEE: Data's been collected from say the mid-'80s till now. The trend is for a smaller volume of the dead zone over time, which is really encouraging.

SHAPIRO: So last year was the first year since records started being kept that there was no dead zone at all.

MCGEE: Yes. Actually for the last two years, they never measured water that had zero oxygen, which is the first time that it had ever happened in the history of collecting data.

SHAPIRO: For a long time, there was not much improvement. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says things only started to get a lot better in the last decade when the Environmental Protection Agency started coordinating state efforts to stick to a pollution diet, a sort of budget for how much each state can pollute. There was money for people to plant buffer zones near the water's edge, like trees and bushes to block runoff, and polluters faced consequences. In other words, the federal government provided help for those who wanted to embrace environmental practices and penalties for those who didn't.

BART JAEGER: So what we're going to do now is we're going to drop a probe down and actually measure the dissolved oxygen content.

SHAPIRO: That's Bart Jaeger, who also works for the foundation. He's the captain of our boat today.

So this probe is basically a wand that's, like, less than a foot long. It's metal, and it's got a wire attached. And you're just going to drop it in the water.

JAEGER: Correct.

MCGEE: Colleague of ours is a big fisherman, and he's got a depth finder like we have here. And when the dead zone is bad, he can actually see the fish kind of stacked up above the dead zone. And he'll see where the fish are. They may be, you know, at 20 feet, but maybe he's in 35 feet of water because the fish are moving up to avoid that dead zone.


MCGEE: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And what's the reading?

MCGEE: So 5.6.

SHAPIRO: Oh, that's pretty good.

MCGEE: So that is good.

SHAPIRO: Plenty of dissolved oxygen which fish need to survive. As we motor away from the deepest part of the bay, Jaeger spots a break in the surface of the water, then another.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: What is it?

SHAPIRO: It's a pair of rays.

JAEGER: Their mating ritual is usually up near the surface, and so they're usually splashing around. And so yeah, if you look at them, they're actually kind of in tandem.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, their wings are just poking out of the water. That is beautiful.

Nobody disputes the health of the bay these days, but people do disagree about what's responsible for these changes. We pull our boat up alongside Billy Crook, a 59-year-old commercial crabber who's been working these waters since he was a teenager.

BILLY CROOK: I grew up in Baltimore right near a sewage plant and a company that cleaned down tanker trucks. And everything went into the bay back then, everything.

SHAPIRO: Today his crab harvests are better than they've ever been, and that makes a real difference.

CROOK: I've got a bunch of little kids. I had a good year last year, so they got a trip to Disney World.

SHAPIRO: So who gets the credit for cleaning up the bay? Well, if you ask Billy Crook, it's not the feds.

CROOK: The EPA - I mean they do some good, but mostly they do a lot of talk. They always talk about putting money in the bay. We never see the physical evidence of them doing much, you know?

SHAPIRO: He believes the cleanup has been mostly voluntary. People stopped polluting because pollution stopped being socially acceptable. And this is the crux of the debate happening in Washington right now. Is federal money still needed to keep the bay clean? The Trump administration proposes a budget that would cut funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup from $73 million to zero.

Back on land, we sit down at the water's edge with Will Baker, the head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He's worked here since 1976, and just recently, there have been some really exciting developments. Prehistoric fish that used to be thick in these waters and went nearly extinct are now making a comeback.

WILL BAKER: When I first heard that spawning sturgeon were back in the bay, my reaction was, yes, we can get this done. It's really exciting. You give nature half a chance, and she will produce every single time.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. is full of big, polluted bodies of water - the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River. So I asked Baker why the Chesapeake Bay should get all this attention and taxpayer money.

BAKER: This is where "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written. This is where the Revolutionary War was fought. Truly it is where America started. This is a body of water that produces more seafood per acre than really any other body of water in the country.

SHAPIRO: I've heard people argue that states that want to do this can do this at the state level. Why do you think the federal government and the EPA need to play a role? And what should that role be?

BAKER: So the critical role of the EPA has been to be the glue that holds the six states and the District of Columbia together, working in concert to save the Chesapeake Bay system.

SHAPIRO: He says it required money and regulations along with social pressure - carrots, sticks and people caring. Without any one of those legs, he thinks the stool would fall over. Under the Trump administration, that may be put to the test.


SHAPIRO: Tomorrow we'll meet a farmer whose family has lived by the bay since the 1700s. Years ago, he joined a lawsuit challenging the cleanup plan. Now he's fighting to keep the plan alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It was a struggle to get there. I was critical in the beginning. What we do know now is that working together, we have figured out a way with funding to get those programs in place and to get the bay on track that's getting it environmentally better.


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