As is the case in all things, the new year is a time of taking stock on the Chesapeake - of looking back at a relatively calm 1997 from the hydrologic and meteorological standpoints, but a quite chaotic year from biological and political points of view.
This contrast is explained by one word - pfiesteria. There is no doubt that the real news on the Chesapeake last year was the outbreak of this one-celled dinoflagellate in a number of tidal rivers, and the resulting fish kills and effects on humans.
Aided by reports of years of inattention to similar phenomena in North Carolina waters, the governmental and public responses were immediate and far-reaching in the Bay, as much for what it portended as for what actually happened.
And it is ironic that the very calm of our water and weather systems in 1997, coming after the record storms of 1996, may have contributed to the outbreaks. A number of the suspected triggering conditions may have been "set up" by the calm, dry summer coming after a year of heavy nutrient loadings to the Bay - low flows, high salinities, high acidity, nutrient buildups on the land, little flushing, then brief thunderstorms.
In retrospect, I am prepared to say that the pfiesteria events of the summer of '97 may, on balance, prove to be a benefit to the Chesapeake. The key words are "on balance." I would not discount for one second the losses of those who feared for their health, or that of loved ones from these outbreaks. Or the economic losses of those whose livelihoods depended on those rivers and their fish and shellfish. Or the processors and wholesalers and restaurateurs who suffered a temporary 40 percent drop in seafood sales. Or the recreational fishing industry and marinas. Or even those who simply wanted to go out on the Bay to enjoy it and its endless coves, inlets and creeks, but had to give it a second thought.
In the broadest sense, the pfiesteria scare has given us one of those rare "teachable moments" when we were all forced to pause and ask ourselves how we got here. What were the things we failed to think through enough? What were the little warning signs we perhaps decided to ignore? How did we manage to convince ourselves that we were all doing enough of the right things together, when there was a very different message waiting for the right moment to emerge from the sediments and strike?
But much more important, what are the lessons we can learn and how can we take things forward together from here?
A lot of the thinking has already begun. We now understand that we must address nutrient "hot spots" on the Bay and in the tributaries - places where there are buildups of nutrients to concentration levels that need to be addressed.
The goal of a 40 percent reduction in nutrients everywhere had a certain equity and simplicity, and there is no doubt that it has gotten us a long way and needs to be pursued. But we have long known that there were some areas harder hit than others, or more susceptible than others, and the time has now come to deal with that reality. Last October, the Chesapeake Executive Council signed a directive to start the process.
Second, we are forced to recognize that the nature and extent of animal agriculture in our watershed has undergone major changes in recent years.
Many of these changes reflect national trends, but they nonetheless requiredifferent approaches, different players and different assumptions about the impact of agriculture.
Larger numbers of animals, higher concentrations and a high level of vertical market integration are all factors that need more attention in designing solutions and finding opportunities.
With respect to poultry, which is the major animal activity on the Eastern Shore, a great deal has already happened. The states and the EPA have opened a dialogue with the poultry integrators that is leading to a number of proposals - from changes in feed composition, to innovative uses of poultry litter and soil additives that remediate current conditions.
Progress with voluntary efforts by Delmarva poultry interests has been so promising that the EPA Mid-Atlantic Region was recently given the lead to work with EPA Headquarters on a National Poultry Strategy. This will help to assure equitable treatment throughout the nation as alternative approaches are considered.
Third, there is an effort to deal with manures and litter by focusing on limiting whichever (phosphorus or nitrogen) is first applied in excess. By measuring nutrient management on the basis of nitrogen on the Eastern Shore, the excess application of phosphorus that resulted because of the composition of the litter was ignored.
I confess that this is one of those areas in the last few years where a little bird would occasionally sit on my shoulder and say, "You know, there are some areas where we are probably putting too much phosphorus on the soil, even with nutrient management plans, because we are only looking at nitrogen." "But," I would answer, "we're making so much progress with the farmers now, we can't upset the apple cart."
We all now know better, and some experts say that in some areas, it will take several decades to cleanse the soils of the excess phosphorus we applied through our so-called "best management practices." So we are changing our ways here, too.
These are all good developments, and while some would say they are overdue, I am not so sure the case was or could have been made before pfiesteria struck and made us ask these questions.
This is truly our teachable moment. The question is whether we will build on our reputation and stay the star student among the estuaries, or decide the course work is too hard and perhaps become a drop-out. I have no doubt that we are already hard at work to stay at the top of the class.