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Chesapeake Bay: The Prosperity, Decline, and Restoration of an American Treasure

With over 150 major rivers and streams from six different states flowing into it, Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the lower 48 states. It plays a crucial role in both the ecology and the economy of Maryland and Virginia, the two states it spans, and has long been treasured for its pristine beauty and abundant, diverse wildlife.

Home to more than 300 species of fish and copious amounts of clams and oysters, Chesapeake Bay has supported one of the highest-grossing seafood industries in the United States.   It has also proven wildly popular among tourists, lured in hordes to its gorgeous blue waters, scenic shores, and the ample opportunities for fishing, crabbing, boating, and sailing that it offers.

The Dawn of Decline

Beginning in the early 1970s, however, Chesapeake Bay began to be plagued by a number of troubles, many of which persist to this day. Its rivers and streams, once a glassy, shimmering blue, had become enveloped in toxic green sheaths that permeated the air with an acrid, putrefying odor.

Its shores, once teeming with wildlife, were experiencing dramatic reductions in aquatic vegetation and animal life. Entire populations of fish were being wiped out, their corpses floating to the surface and washing up on the banks, in some cases by the thousands.

These problems, which seemed to crop up overnight, proved only the beginning of the sudden and steep decline that the bay would continue to experience. In less than a decade, Chesapeake Bay had become the poster child for human-induced environmental degradation, and all of its entailing devastation.

The Cause of Decline

What was the cause of all of this? How had one of the Eastern seaboard’s most prosperous biodiversities become its most polluted region, and in so short a time?

Intent on finding answers to these questions, Congress funded extensive scientific research of the Chesapeake Bay in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The findings of these series of investigations revealed that the problems plaguing Chesapeake Bay were largely the result of human activities. Construction, agriculture, and industry were found to be the primary contributors to the bay’s deteriorating health, because of the enormous amount of waste that each activity generates. These wastes, the studies showed, were being funneled directly into the bay by runoff, causing rampant growth of algae across the bay’s surface.

Algal blooms not only use up a great deal of oxygen that is present in the water, but they also block sunlight from penetrating below the surface. As algae proliferated across the surface of the bay, huge swaths of aquatic vegetation – unable to withstand the loss of oxygen and sunlight – were completely wiped out. Without vegetation, vast regions of the bay became uninhabitable, and the wildlife they had been supporting either dwindled or perished altogether.

Algae completely blankets the surface of the water in this Chesapeake Bay tributary.

Working Towards a Solution

In response to these findings, the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, along with the mayor of Washington DC and the administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983. The agreement signified their collective dedication to restoring Chesapeake Bay to its former grace, and outlined a number of measures by which they planned to do so. Each measure belonged to one or more of five basic categories: living resource management, vital habitat protection, community engagement, water quality, and sound land use.

Most of the legislation that proceeded from the agreement focused on the last of these categories: sound land use. Given that the leading agents behind Chesapeake Bay’s deteriorating health – construction, farming, and industry – were also those most responsible for altering the natural landscape, the Maryland and Virginia state governments recognized the need for stricter land use policies. A host of new laws aimed at protecting the bay from waste-filled runoff were soon implemented, with new regulations that specified which lands could be used for which purposes and which lands were off-limits altogether.

Waterfront development that requires the use of cranes is particularly harmful to Chesapeake Bay health. Cranes remove vegetation, which destroys wildlife habitat and erodes soil, which ends up in the water and produces algae.

Critical Area Law

One of the most stringent of these measures, Maryland’s Critical Area law, came right on the heels of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, and represented a groundbreaking advance in environmental legislation. It was the strongest of several laws that comprised the Chesapeake Bay Initiative, which then-Governor Harry R. Hughes had hoped would return the estuary to its former glory. By restricting development within 1,000 feet of the shoreline and disallowing any disturbance to land or vegetation within 100 feet of the water, Critical Area law sought to improve Chesapeake Bay’s water quality and preserve its waterfront wildlife habitat by ensuring the preservation of 5,200 miles of Maryland shoreline.

Only under exceptional circumstances – in theory, at least – could a landowner become exempt from these restrictions, by applying for a variance and receiving approval from the county.

Critical Area law pioneered a nationwide surge in environmental legislation that placed restrictions on development.   By prohibiting any and all construction on Maryland’s waterfront land, Critical Area law was expected to curtail further pollution of Chesapeake Bay, and thus ameliorate its diminished water quality, revivify its dwindling vegetation, restore its damaged habitats, and revitalize its waning wildlife.

So, did it succeed?

Unfortunately not. Today, Chesapeake Bay is just as contaminated, and in some areas far more so, than ever before. Several species of fish and shellfish in the bay have reached record lows, as have numerous species of aquatic plants. The two nutrients responsible for the algal blooms that continue to plague the bay, nitrogen and phosphorus, remain present in far higher levels than what is healthy and normal. And the bay is still ridden with marine dead zones – areas so lacking in oxygen that they cannot support plant or animal life – that render the bay more and more uninhabitable.

Swirls of green and black represent the unhealthy amount of nutrients present in the bay.

Why did it fail?

A number of follow-up studies have been conducted in order to determine why it is that Chesapeake Bay’s deterioration has persisted in spite of the introduction of so much, and such aggressive, environmental legislation. One such study, published in 2008, investigated Critical Area law and the influence it has had on the health of the bay since its inception. The study’s findings indicate that while Critical Area law has proven effective in preventing large-scale development of Chesapeake Bay, poor enforcement of the law has more or less negated its impact on smaller-scale development. Lenient approval of variances and lax monitoring of compliance have seen the law tiptoed around – or ignored completely – by droves of waterfront landowners over the past three decades.

Solomons Island, Maryland – an example of Chesapeake Bay’s densely concentrated waterfront properties

According to the study, variance requests by owners hoping to build on their waterfront property had been approved at a whopping 75% – a staggeringly high rate that far exceeds what the authors of the bill had envisioned in 1983.

Those without permission to build – either because their variance requests were denied or because they hadn’t bothered applying – went ahead and built anyway. Less than a decade after the new law went into effect, structures of every imaginable type – gazebos, pools, porches, full-size homes, even mansions and lighthouses, to name a few – had sprung up across the Maryland shoreline, many of them well within 1,000 feet of Chesapeake Bay.

Though these structures reflect a brazen disregard for state law, the study found that the vast majority of these violators went unpunished. County agencies tasked with monitoring compliance were too understaffed and underfunded to supervise so many miles of coastline, let alone administer sanctions. For the most part, punitive action was only taken when waterfront property owners lodged formal complaints against neighbors whose illegal structures impeded their views or beach access. The fines these violators were assessed were laughably small, hardly enough to deter anyone from building illegally.

The study also showed that violators were rarely ordered to tear down their illegal structures. In one case, an enormous mansion on a small island in the Magothy River – replete with a lighthouse, pool, gazebo, and boat ramp – was built without a single approval, went unnoticed for four years, and, after finally being discovered, was permitted to stand (other than the pool and gazebo, which were ordered removed).

Illegally built mansion on a small island in the Magothy River, Maryland

When caught, violators often applied for ‘retroactive variances’ which, for the most part, were just as easy to obtain as those requested prior to construction.

Has anything changed?

How has Critical Area law been more effective in the past decade? Did the findings from the 2008 study lead to stronger enforcement?

A study recently published by University of Maryland’s Environmental Law Clinic reveals that enforcement of Critical Area law has become even more ineffectual in recent years. Among the six counties included in the study, data showed that variance requests between 2012 and 2014 had been granted from 89% to 100% of the time. Those applying for variances frequently cited the term “unwarranted hardship” to justify their need to build. Without explicit guidelines by which to evaluate these ‘hardships,’ however, counties were given far too much discretion in approving construction, and proved far too accommodating.

In addition to woefully substandard oversight and lenient granting of variances, each of the six counties failed to keep adequate records of the few interventions they did make. Without proper records of each case they dealt with, they were unable to keep track of the waterfront properties they had monitored, and consequently, the variances they had denied and penalties they had assessed.

Algal blooms pervading Chesapeake Bay waters.

Another contributing factor to the rampant development of Maryland waterfront along the bay is the fact that most counties in the state do not have an inspector whose primary task is to examine properties for their Critical Area law compliance. That duty belongs to any number of field staff, whose primary focus is on other matters, such as construction grading and stormwater management. Additionally, many counties do not have their own boat, which severely limits the amount of oversight they are able to exercise. Anne Arundel County, for instance – one of the 6 counties studied – contains over 500 miles of shoreline, containing thousands of waterfront properties that couldn’t possibly be monitored adequately without a boat.

Skipjack boats, commonly used for dredging oysters, float on Chesapeake Bay.

The future of Chesapeake Bay – what does it look like?

It’s hard to say. A number of factors do not bode well for its eventual restoration, not least of which is the fact that an estimated 100,000 new residents move into areas around the bay each year. Additionally, many of the surrounding counties remain underfunded and incapable of policing waterfront construction.

Fines for violators remain low, often less than $1,000, and homeowners continue to build as they please. Approval of variances remains high, and Maryland’s tradition of local control means that any law that would grant the state the authority to permit variances would never pass.

It is unlikely that the federal government will intervene either, as President Trump just signed an executive order repealing one of former President Obama’s major environmental regulations, which aimed to protect American waterways. The regulation was initially issued as part of the 1972 Clean Water Act, which was inspired by the contamination of Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River, and Puget Sound. Completed by the Obama administration in 2015, the rule was intended to restore federal authority to limit pollution in the nation’s major waterways, as well as the streams and wetlands flowing into them. President Trump’s move to repeal the regulation precludes Chesapeake Bay from receiving federal assistance.

But there is also reason for hope. In 2010, the ecosystem health of Chesapeake Bay was given a rating of 31, which, although dismal, is three points higher than it scored in 2008 – a significant increase.

Additionally, recent polls have revealed that Americans are becoming increasingly wary of the threat posed by climate change. As more and more people across the nation accept the reality of climate change and the need to combat it, Americans are becoming increasingly receptive to policy aimed at mitigating our collective impact on the environment. Though perhaps no cause for celebration, the upward trend in national concern for climate change is certainly a cause for optimism. And as for restoring Chesapeake Bay to the state of prosperity from which it only so recently fell, it may be our only hope.