Charles McC. Mathias Jr., a three-term United States senator from Maryland who was instrumental in launching the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, died Jan. 25 at his home in Chevy Chase, MD, of complications from Parkinson's Disease. He was 87.
Mathias, who served in the U.S. House from 1961 through 1969, then in the Senate until 1987, was a liberal Republican who sponsored civil rights legislation, advocated for equal rights for women and was critical of the Vietnam War. He was called "the conscience of the Senate" by its Democratic leader, Mike Mansfield.
Mathias also played a pivotal role in Chesapeake restoration, even though he grew up far from the Bay in western Maryland. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who was elected to Mathias' seat after his retirement, hailed him as "the founding father of a great and ongoing effort to save the Chesapeake."
As a first-term senator, Mathias heard a growing number of complaints from Marylanders about the Bay's condition and its poor water quality. "I remember when I was a small child, the Chesapeake Bay was pretty clear," he recalled in 2003 interview with the Bay Journal. "Now it looked just muddy."
In 1973, "Mac" as he was commonly known, took a a five-day, 450-mile tour of the Chesapeake Bay for a firsthand look at problems facing the Bay.
Then-EPA Administrator Russell Train was along for part of the trip, as was Interior Secretary Rogers Morton. Along the way, Mathias talked to more than 150 people, from businessmen to government officials to watermen to farmers to scientists. "Everyone we met was interested and wanted to be a part of it," he said. "The spirit of the time was tremendous."
The boat trip, Mathias said, gave him a sense of the diverse problems facing the Bay, from discharge pipes leading out of cities, to runoff from rural areas, to the loss of underwater grass beds almost everywhere. "By pulling all of these things together, you got a comprehensive picture of what all the problems of the Bay were," he said. "They were not just one thing."
After the trip, Mathias pushed for increased attention on the Bay, which ultimately resulted in a five-year, $25 million study by the EPA. The state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program was created in 1983 in response to the findings of that study.
Two decades after the Bay Program was started, though, he said he was not surprised the task of restoring the Chesapeake was still under way. "I had hoped it could be completed long before this, but in a way there is no completion," he said. "It is an ongoing problem because of the difficulties that feed the problem."
"The fact there are thousands of homes being built ultimately ends in a greater burden on the Bay from all kinds of pollution," he said. "We are beginning to realize that it has to be an ongoing project. As long as there are human activities in the Bay there are going to have to be offsetting programs to deal with them."
Nonetheless, he said, "I think we've come a long way." And, he said, other politicians should follow his lead by taking a trip like his to appreciate the diversity of issues afflicting the nation's largest estuary. "I would recommend it."