National Geographic : 2005 Jun
as excess fertilizers wash into the Susquehanna River, which provides about half of the Chesa peake's fresh water. Agricultural pollution control is largely vol untary in Lancaster County and throughout the bay's watershed. "I'm regulating 240 farms out of more than 5,000 here-the rest don't come under any state or federal standards," said Kevin Sei bert, nutrient program manager for the county's conservation district. "We've been working here with farmers for decades, and most of those will ing to be educated have been educated." According to Seibert, Harold Wissler is doing more than most Pennsylvania farmers to con trol runoff. He spreads only as much manure as he needs to grow his crops, shipping the excess to a broker for mushroom growers, who pays him seven dollars a ton. But farmers must do a lot more to reach the approximately 40 percent cuts in nutrient pollution needed to restore the bay. An experiment on farms in Maryland went well beyond anything Wissler does, eliminating manure and planting special crops in the fall to absorb excess fertilizer. Pollution was cut by 25 percent, while maintaining yields. State officials in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia now Chesapeake. There, for the 17th year in a row, we're going to wade into the river, up to our shoulders, hoping to see our toes. It's been decades since the bay was clear enough to do that. A former state senator and native of Broomes Island on the lower Patuxent, Fowler, now 81, has spent nearly half his life fighting to make it pos sible to see clear water again. He's prayed and poli ticked, begged and sued: Led by Fowler in 1977, three counties along the lower part of the river sued the state and federal government and won, leading to a commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage-treatment plants. For a time the Patuxent looked like a model for bay-wide restoration, but even its cleanup hasn't been enough. "A lot's been done, a whole lot," Fowler allowed. "But we still don't have a lot of underwater grasses, crabs, or oysters. We don't have as many fish. This river and this bay are still a disgrace." In 2003, for the first time, University of Maryland scientists graded the Patuxent's water quality, fisheries habitat, and abundance of algae. They gave it a D plus. "I tell my grown son about when 60 oyster "If we do right by water quality. have plans to dramatically cut farm pollution, but they're still mostly just that-plans on paper-and may remain so until the states find the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to help farmers meet the new standards. What more could Wissler do now to help the bay? Seibert ticked off a list of added measures like building more manure storage containers and planting the fall crops used in the Maryland experiment. When I suggested them to Wissler, he responded patiently. "Well, it would be very difficult. It would move up my retirement pretty fast." If so, he'd have no trouble selling his farm: Land-hungry developers are paying up to $20,000 an acre in Lancaster County. No one said cleaning up the bay would be easy. Bernie Fowler knows that better than anyone. He's my inspiration for paddling some 55 miles in four days down Maryland's Patuxent River, from its upper reaches amid the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis, to where it broadens majestically between rural shores near its meeting with the 42 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JUNE 2005 boats were working out of Broomes Island, and 12 commercial fishing operations, and about catching six sugar barrels of crabs a day, and he can't believe it," said Fowler. "And that's my fear we're coming to accept the river as it is." By now a good-size crowd had assembled to hear speeches before the testing of the waters. Once the bay is put on a healthy, reduced nutrient diet, explained Walter Boynton, a top bay scientist who lives and works on the Patux ent, it will respond "in a year or two." Indeed, when a recent drought cut polluted runoff, water clarity and underwater grasses rebounded, and the bay's dead zone, where dissolved oxygen is too low to sustain life (less than one milligram per liter) shrank. "If we do right by water qual ity-cut nutrient pollution by about half-we won't pay for the sins of the past." Anson Hines, a marine ecologist at the Smith sonian Environmental Research Center near Annapolis, had a similar message about the bay's crabs, which are incredibly fecund and mature . .