It was 1973, and environmental consciousness across the nation was growing. The first Earth Day had taken place three years earlier. The EPA was 3 years old, and the Clean Water Act was a year old.
In the midst of that national activity, a first-term U.S. senator from Maryland was increasingly hearing reports about something amiss in his own backyard.
People on and near the Chesapeake had a host of complaints: seafood harvests were down, grass beds were disappearing, raw sewage and industrial wastes were pouring into the water.
Although Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias was from Western Maryland, he could tell there was something to the complaints. “I remember when I was a small child, the Chesapeake Bay was pretty clear,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Now it looked just muddy.”
Thirty years ago this summer, the Republican senator went to see for himself. He left the Port of Baltimore on a five-day, 450-mile tour of the Chesapeake Bay that sparked the modern cleanup effort.
The weather was “glorious,” and so was the reception. “Everyone we met was interested and wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “The spirit of the time was tremendous.”
Then-EPA Administrator Russell Train was along for part of the trip, as was Interior Secretary Rogers Morton. Mathias talked to more than 150 people, from businessmen to government officials to watermen to farmers to scientists.
The fact that a U.S. senator was paying attention to the growing problems of the Bay was encouraging to many. “He was absolutely convinced there was a problem,” recalled Bernie Fowler, then a local government official working to clean the Patuxent River.
Fowler said he was gratified that Mathias took 45 minutes to talk to him about the river’s problems which, at that time, many other politicians were ignoring. “I’ll tell you what it helped,” Fowler said. “It helped my morale.” Fowler went on to become a state senator who played a major role in the Bay cleanup.
The boat trip, Mathias said, not only allowed him to meet concerned people such as Fowler, but also gave him a sense of the diverse problems facing the Bay, from discharge pipes leading out of cities, to runoff in rural areas, to the loss of 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.”
Government was part of the problem, too. At Andrews Air Force Base, chemicals washed from planes were flushed into the water. So was the sewage from the president’s yacht, Mathias said.
“Each problem led to another problem,” he said. “It finally became clear that we needed a comprehensive study of the Bay. Not just one issue at a time, but how the issues related to each other.”
After the tour, Mathias began pushing for such a study. It took nearly two years to secure support. With so many federal agencies having a hand in the Bay, it was unclear who should lead the study. Others didn’t see the point. People asked “what could you do with this type of a study? What good is it?” Mathias recalled. “We had to prove that.”
Ultimately, the EPA got $25 million for a five-year study. Its completion, in 1983, led to the formation of the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
Mathias said that agreement was a landmark, as it brought Maryland and Virginia—states historically at odds—to the table. “The days of the oyster wars were not very far behind,” Mathias noted. Pennsylvania, a state that did not border the Bay but contributed much of its pollution, also participated. “It would have been very easy for the upstream communities to shrug it off,” Mathias said.
Today, Mathias, who retired from the Senate in 1987, is happy that the cleanup effort launched in his own region has become a model for others: “People from all over the world are aware of the Chesapeake Bay Program and want to emulate it.”
The former senator said he would recommend that other political leaders take similar tours of the Bay, to meet its people, appreciate its value, learn of its woes and keep cleanup efforts moving ahead. “There has to be some leadership, continuous leadership,” he said.
Mathias said he wished there had been more progress since his trip. But as long as growth continues in the watershed, he said, the cleanup will never be completed. “I had hoped it could be completed long before this,” he said, “but in a way there is no completion. It is an ongoing problem because of the difficulties that feed the problem.”