What are we teaching the children at home?
“Teach your children well,” instructed the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song from 1970, but it seems that many of us Baby Boomers who grew up listening to that did not heed its lyrics, at least when it comes to environmental education.
The scariest article in this issue may not be about dead zones or nutrient pollution, but about what our kids are, and are not, learning.
As Lara Lutz reports, today’s youth are more disconnected from nature than ever, and that may bode poorly for the future of the Bay.
Lara had started out to learn whether teachers in upstream areas had difficulty in making Bay connections in their lessons. She quickly learned that the problem facing teachers everywhere was making any connection between today’s kids and the natural world.
I have been noticing that same thing. Although our subdivision is home to many children, this summer, fewer than ever were outside. Yards and streets were as void of children as the most frigid winter afternoons.
My own son devotes hours to computer games; getting him onto a bicycle requires serious persuasion. Sleepovers with friends are mostly devoted to video game marathons.
In our neighborhood, parents caravan in SUVs to a bus stop to pick up the kids so they won’t have to walk a mile home. Many consider the trip dangerous, although the main hazard would appear to be stepping in a cow pie as they pass the dairy farm.
All this gets the children home about 20 minutes earlier than if they had stayed on the bus, which takes a more circuitous route to get to our subdivision.
The Bay Program used to push the slogan, “the Bay starts here” to make people feel connected to the Chesapeake. That may be especially true for many of us parents: Environmental education starts at home.
What’s a dead zone?
Newspapers this summer have been filled with reports of expansive oxygen-depleted “dead zones” covering as much as 41 percent of the Chesapeake. But did fish actually need scuba gear to survive in two fifths of the Bay this year?
The answer, like much about the Bay, is complex, And to some, the term “dead zone”—which has no scientific definition but has been increasingly used by watermen, environmentalists and newspapers around the Bay (and the globe)—oversimplifies that complexity.
“The way the dead zone has been used by different people is that it gives a sense that there is absolutely no aquatic life living within a much larger part of the Chesapeake than would be the case,” said Rich Batiuk, associate director of science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office.
Batiuk, specifically, objects to the use of the phrase “dead zone” for any stretch of water that has less than 5 milligrams of oxygen per liter of water. The Bay Program, which is the source of most water quality monitoring data, defines low-oxygen water, as anything with less than 5 mg/l. And Bay Program figures show that up to 41 percent of the Bay had low oxygen during part of the summer.
But not all of that area would be expected to have 5 mg/l of oxygen, Batiuk said. The Bay Program spent years developing Chesapeake water quality criteria that recognize that many areas of the Bay naturally have low levels of oxygen in the summer, and the species that inhabit those areas need varying amounts of oxygen. Striped bass like to have at least 5 mg/l in areas where they live, but spot and croaker can be happy with as little as 3 mg/l in deeper areas where they feed.
Even when applying that standard, huge swaths of the Bay still do not have the amount of oxygen the criteria call for, Batiuk acknowledged, but they are far from lifeless.
“This system is not healthy in the least when it comes to oxygen, but call it correctly,” Batiuk said. The term “dead zone,’ he said, might be appropriate for anoxic, water which has no oxygen—something that would have applied to just 5.1 percent of the Bay this summer.
“You can simplify it,” Batiuk said, “but don’t get to the point where you are giving people incorrect information or just hyping it up because ‘skull and crossbones’ gets more attention.”
Not everyone agrees. Chuck Epes, a spokesman for the Virginia Office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, spent much of the summer trying to draw media attention to the worse-than- predicted low oxygen conditions.
Disconcertingly, Epes said he found growing disinterest in oxygen among some reporters. “I had a reporter from a major Virginia newspaper make the remark, ‘It happens every year, right? So where is the news in this?’
“As a former reporter, I understand what he means—news is, by definition, something new. But it does also suggest that there is not as much of an urgency perhaps, not only in the news media but by the public and policy makers in grappling with this issue.”
The foundation, in press releases, often refers to water below 5 mg/l in the Bay as a dead zone, although it also points out that different Bay creatures need different levels of oxygen.
“I hear the point that dead zone doesn’t mean everything dies, but we have never characterized it as that.” Epes said. “Still, levels below 5 are unhealthy, levels like that will cause harm to something, particularly if you can’t swim and get away from it.”
Not calling low-oxygen waters a dead zone, Epes said, could further diminish public support for cleaning the Bay—a job expected to cost billions of dollars and take years.
“I think we do seek to be a little more evocative, and that is why I like it,” he said. “It communicates very well the kind of thing we are talking about. And I don’t think we are being over the top with it.”
The issue raises an interesting question: Do conditions have to be acutely harmful to be a “dead zone,” or just chronically bad? Take a striped bass and put it in anoxic water and it will die pretty quickly. Put it in water with less than 5 mg/l and it will be stressed, but not killed. If that stress leads them to become diseased and die, was it a “dead zone” victim?
The Bay Journal has for years used the term “dead zone” to convey what pollution does—sight unseen for most people—to the water, although we use it generically without applying it to any specific water quality concentration.
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