The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

Tom Pelton

It was a warm spring evening as I set off in a kayak from a boat ramp in Middletown, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Baltimore, into the still waters of Swatara Creek.

A family of ducks, with a dozen ducklings, paddled in the river.  A pair of kayakers, father and son, came in off the waterway, dragging their boats up and laughing with each other. Children in their bathing suits splashed in the shallows at the boat launch.

As the sun set, illuminating  the clouds, I passed around a bend and, beyond the trees, saw the four enormous cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

It was 40 years ago, in 1979, that a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island triggered the evacuation or flight more 140,000 people from south central Pennsylvania. The incident – and the authorities’ bungled response to it -- generated so much fear that the nuclear industry never recovered in the U.S.

Fibonacci Blue/Wikimedia commons

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators. Many Americans used the occasion to criticize the Chinese government for being intolerant of public protests, and to feel good that such authoritarian behavior could never be tolerated in the U.S., where the rights to freedom of assembly and speech are enshrined in the Constitution.

After all, America was born in protest – with the Boston Tea Party. Nonviolent civil disobedience was the cornerstone of the abolition, suffrage, labor, and Civil Rights movements.

But over the last two years, a growing number of Republican states have been passing laws to outlaw and criminalize public protests, often threatening long prison sentences for activists.

A recent example was in Texas, where state legislators last week passed a law making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for protesters to try to interrupt the construction of oil and gas pipelines or any other so-called “critical infrastructure” projects.

Wikimedia Commons

Last year, record-breaking rains pummeled Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay, flushing farm fertilizer and runoff pollution from parking and roads lots into the estuary.

Many Chesapeake ecologists feared that the unprecedented downpours – partially driven by climate change – would reverse progress that the bay had been enjoying since the year 2010.

Well, the results finally came in last week and they were in some ways predictable.  The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Health’s annual report card on the bay found that the water clarity in the bay last year plummeted to a rating of 7 out of 100 – the second lowest figure on record.

But, here’s the surprising part:  the bay’s overall health dipped only slightly last year, from a 54 rating out of 100 in 2017 to a 46 in 2018. That’s much less of a slip than researchers expected with all the rainfall.

The main reason: Underwater grasses in the bay, which are critical habitat for crabs and fish and perhaps the Bay’s most important single health indicator, hung on despite the downpours, which normally smother grasses with runoff, sediment and mud.

Preliminary data from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that underwater grasses covered at least 86,000 acres of the bay last year (and that figure is likely to grow when the final numbers are submitted). That’s less than the almost 105,000 acres in 2017, but still about the fifth highest total on record since monitoring began in the late 1970s.

Wikimedia Commons

This is the call of a black skimmer.

Also called the stormgull or scissor bill, black skimmers are curious-looking birds that fish along the Atlantic Coast. They have black and white feathers, bright orange and black beaks and what looks like a ridiculous underbite. The lower portion of their beak juts far beyond their upper beak.

David Curson is Director of Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society’s Maryland/DC chapter. He described how black skimmers use this seeming deformity in an ingenious an efficient way to trick and capture prey like no other creature on earth.

“They have a very interesting shaped beak where their lower mandible is much longer than the upper one,” Curson explained. “And they use this lower one to make a little disturbance in the water, as they fly along a straight line.  Now this attracts little fish, which are their main prey. And so then the black skimmer turns around and flies along the exact same path with its beak in the water again. And when it feels a fish, it snaps it up.”

Black skimmers return to the Maryland’s coast every spring to lay their eggs and raise their young on small, sandy islands that lie in the coastal bays between Assateague Island and Ocean City and the mainland.

A recent study by the Audubon Society, however, found that these sandy islands – which the birds need to protect their eggs from predators – are rapidly disappearing in part because of sea level rise driven by climate change.

Johns Hopkins University Press

It’s an hour after sunset on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  Glenn Therres, a wildlife biologist and associate director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is up to his usual Friday night routine: prowling the back roads in a pickup truck, surveying frogs.

He pulls off on a swampy roadside near the Miles River and scrambles out to identify several species of amphibians by their trills and grunts.

“Each of the frogs has a unique call,”  Therres said. “Some of them are fairly similar but most you can distinguish from each other. So the little rattle-y sound here? Sounds like crickets?  Those are called northern cricket frogs. And they really sound like someone taking a can of paint and shaking it and hearing that little ball inside. That’s a cricket frog.  The bullfrogs are the kind of ‘mrrp, mrrp, mrrp.”’

Keeping track of frogs, toads, and salamanders is increasingly important because amphibians are in sharp decline around the world.  The journal Science recently published a study that found that an invasive species of fungus called "chytrid" is contributing to the decline of more than 500 species of amphibians globally.

Tom Pelton

At the far southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, Jonathan White, a former rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, directed a tour of the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk.

While some dismiss climate change as a hoax, Admiral White described the very real threat that sea-level rise caused by global warming poses even to the military.

“If we just did nothing with this base, it’s easy to see that in a worst-case scenario of a couple of meters of sea level rise by the end of the century, much of this base would not be usable,” said White, an oceanographer and former director of the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. “You wouldn’t even be able to get to the ships to even pull the ships in to the piers here. So you are going to have to do something to respond to that level of sea level rise.”

Wikimedia Commons

On Earth Day this year, the Trump Administration’s EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, appeared in a television interview in which he claimed America’s environment is dramatically cleaner than it used to be.

“A lot of younger people, a lot of Millennials voting for the first time, think that the state of the environment is horrible,” Wheeler said. “Actually, our air quality is 73 percent cleaner than it was in the 1970s. Back in the 1970’s, 40 percent of our drinking water systems did not meet the basic EPA regulations or standards. Today, 92 percent of our drinking water systems meet the EPA drinking water standards every single day. So we have clean air, we have clean water. But we can do better and we are doing better.”

This is a theme – that the environment is doing well-- often repeated by both the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans as they propose cutting EPA’s budget by 31 percent and slashing regulations that control air and water pollution.

The idea is this: If voters think they don’t really need EPA so much anymore – or more broadly, government in general – that will allow politicians to cut back government and give companies a freer hand to make more profits by dumping more pollution into our waterways and atmosphere.

The problem is that Andrew Wheeler’s comments contain narrow elements of truth, but are more generally misleading.

Tom Pelton

For 230 years, since the times of the French Revolution, a white ash tree grew in a forest beside a stream that much later became part of Baltimore. My house was built it its shadow in 1904. And by the time I moved in in 1998, its trunk was five feet across.

It was on this tree that I built a rope swing that my daughters – now off to college – flew on in their white first communion dresses when they were young.  Then all the neighborhood kids adopted the swing, to play on after school.

Last week, I called in a tree crew with a crane to cut it down.

The white ash had been infected with an invasive species of flying beetle from Asia: the emerald ash borer, which has been killing millions of ash trees across Maryland and the Eastern U.S. over the last decade and a half.

The loss of ash trees across my neighborhood in North Baltimore and the U.S. made me reflect on the often catastrophic impact of invasive species and globalization on our environment.

Over the long history of the Chesapeake Bay, those captivated by its beauty have often suffered from landscape amnesia.

We love and want to preserve what we see today: the shimmering waves.  The sailboats, spinnakers full.  The blue crabs scuttling in the shallows.

We want to save all that. But we do not remember the bay our grandparents knew.  The vast reefs of oysters, filtering and cleaning the water. The schools of American shad, swarming up rivers in the spring. The sturgeon, thick as living logjams. Because we never knew it, we do not miss it. And so, as a society, we are unwilling to invest the money and the political capital – and make the changes necessary -- to bring it back.

Wikipedia

The Maryland General Assembly wrapped up its annual session at Midnight on Monday with a solemn and emotional tribute to House Speaker Michael Busch, the veteran lawmaker and Chesapeake Bay champion who died of pneumonia on Sunday.

Governor Larry Hogan addressed lawmakers: “God bless Speaker Mike Busch, and may God bless his family and all those who loved him,” Hogan said. “And may God continue to bless the great state of Maryland.”

In part as a tribute to Busch’s leadership, lawmakers passed important environmental legislation. This included a bill that would make Maryland the first state in the U.S. to ban Styrofoam food containers, reducing petroleum-based litter that does not break down in the environment. 

Legislators also voted to protect five oyster sanctuaries in the Chesapeake Bay that watermen have lobbied the Hogan Administration to open up to harvest. This pressure has come despite the reality that severe over-harvesting has helped to drive down oyster populations to about 1 percent of historic levels.

University of Maryland Extension Service

For the second year in a row, lawmakers in the Maryland House of Delegates voted to approve a bill that would outlaw an insecticide called chlorpyrifos. Farmers spray the chemical on apples, peaches and other fruits, but scientists have linked the pesticide to brain damage in children.

Delegate Dana Stein of Baltimore County, vice chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, sponsored the legislation that would ban chlorpyrifos.

“It’s been well documented in various scientific studies, including the EPA’s own studies, that this can cause neurological damage to children and infants,” said Stein.  “It’s hazardous to the farm workers who use it. And it’s harmful not just to people. It’s also been found to damage wildlife and aquatic life.”

The ban on the insecticide passed the House by a vote of 90 to 44 on March 15 – before it ran into trouble in the Senate.  The measure had been supported by many public health physicians and environmental organizations, which have compared the toxicity of chlorpyrifos to that of lead.

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Many people think of climate change and sea-level rise as issues that may threaten future generations and far-flung locations.

But a Stanford University researcher recently published an innovative study that documented that rising sea levels, driven by global warming, for years have been eroding the annual revenues of businesses in Maryland’s state capital, Annapolis.

Researcher Miyuki Hino and colleagues studied decades of business receipts and parking lot records for shops and restaurants around the City Dock in Annapolis. They found a more than doubling over the last 20 years in the number of hours of lost business due to what is called “sunny day” flooding. That means high tides that creep up over the docks and flood parking lots and stores without any rainfall or high winds.

In 1950, there was no sunny day flooding in Annapolis. In 1997, businesses around City Dock lost 31 hours of business due to high tides literally lapping at their doors. By 2017, that total had grown to 66 hours.

Tom Pelton

A flood of words have been written about the recently departed Harry Hughes, the governor of Maryland from 1979 to 1987. But not enough has been said about the truly historic nature of his decision, in 1983, to organize and launch a six-state partnership to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

He created the first regional environmental effort of its kind in the world.

Here’s a recording I made of Hughes in 2015 reflecting on what inspired him to make the Chesapeake Bay his legacy.

“It runs right down the center of Maryland, and it sort of characterizes Maryland, I think,” Hughes said in a call from his home in Denton, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “It’s a marvelous natural resource.  And it’s very unusual. Among all the bays of the world, this is a very unique one. It was an easy decision, as far as I was concerned, that we out to do whatever we can to preserve it.”

Tom Pelton

It’s a warm, spring afternoon in Baltimore. And in Druid Hill Park, on the east end of the park’s shimmering lake rises a 150-year-old, Moorish-style stone tower. It’s 30 feet tall, octagonal, with cloverleaf windows and a sweeping view of the rooftops and steeples of the city.

The tower stands at the top of a rolling hillside of grass that, every spring, is the scene of one of Baltimore’s most beautiful shows. Thousands of daffodils erupt into blossoms, creating waves of yellow that cascade down the green all the way to where trucks rumble past on the Jones Falls Expressway.

Today, the flowers are just green nubs trying to push their way up through the grass. But near the base of the hill, even the grass is having trouble fighting its way up into the light – because of what, at first glance, looks like a heavy, dirty snowfall.

It’s a blizzard of trash that has been thrown out of the windows of passing cars. Styrofoam cups and fast-food containers; liquor bottles and Monster energy drink cans; white grocery bags fluttering in the briars; even a broken fishing rod.

Local journalist and author Alec MacGillis has come here this Sunday afternoon to do something about it. It’s become an odd hobby of his: selecting a different trashed city corner every week or two and setting about to personally clean it all up.

Tom Pelton

Last week, the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House held its first oversight hearing into what the Trump Administration has been doing to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Voice of clerk during hearing: “Please rise and raise your right hand so you may be sworn in….”

The administration hired a former coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, to run EPA.  Among other cuts and rollbacks, Wheeler’s first act in office was to weaken pollution control rules for the management of coal ash dumps at power plants. These dumps are often unlined and leaking toxic metals including lead and arsenic into groundwater at more than 240 sites across the U.S., including in Maryland, according to utility company monitoring data.

This pollution poses a threat to streams, rivers, and drinking water supplies. But the loosening of rules is good news for Wheeler’s former clients in the coal business.  EPA predicts Wheeler’s regulatory change will save coal power plants about $30 million a year.

Sodanie Chea/Flickr

It’s almost impossible to walk into a convenience store, pass a bus stop, or even to watch You Tube videos these days without being assaulted with ads for vaping or electronic cigarettes.

This online ad features a cool-looking young actor on the beach, with the surf crashing behind him.

“Blue e-cigs,” the narrator says. “Blue lets me enjoy smoking without it affecting the people around me because it’s vapor, not tobacco smoke. That means there’s no ash. And best of all, no offensive odor.”

But is that really true – that vaping does not affect the people around you?  That it’s harmless, creating no indoor air pollution?

“No,” said Ana Maria Rule, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It is definitely not smoking, that’s a good distinction to make.  However, I don’t know where people get this idea that (vaping) is harmless because the chemicals that are being heated up from the liquid are not harmless chemicals.”

Wikimedia commons

 

Last week, the Baltimore City Council passed a bill that would significantly reduce air pollution from the city’s single largest source of emissions: the BRESCO trash burning incinerator beside Interstate 95.

The company that owns the 34-year-old incinerator, Wheelabrator, has warned that the pollution limits could force the shutdown of a facility that burns 700,000 tons of trash a year for Baltimore and surrounding counties and provides steam heat for downtown buildings.

This, in turn, could force Baltimore residents to pay millions of dollars more to truck the garbage to landfills. The move may require the expansion of the city’s landfill on Quarantine Road in far south Baltimore, which is nearing capacity.

Wheelabrator has called the city’s bill “unlawful” – and is threatening a lawsuit against Baltimore to keep operating.

But beyond this city action, state lawmakers are also teaming up on a separate state legislation that would undermine the incinerator’s financial viability by stripping away millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for trash burning.

 

Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Congressional Democrats unveiled a resolution that articulated a vision for shifting the American economy to a clean energy future. The so-called “Green New Deal” would encourage alternatives to fossil fuels with the goal of creating jobs in wind, solar, and mass transportation.

President Trump’s reaction to the “Green New Deal” was to mock the idea at a political rally.

“It would shut down American energy, which I don’t think the people in Texas will be happy with,” Trump told a crowd in El Paso. “It would shut down a little thing called air travel. They want to take away your car, reduce the value of your home, and put millions of Americans out of work.”

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats defended the move away from coal and oil as a lofty goal – similar to President Kennedy’s proposal of putting a man on the Moon.

Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years ago, following a trend of Republican-style free-market deregulation across the country, the Democratic-led Maryland General Assembly passed a law called the Electric Customer Choice and Competition Act of 1999.

The whole point of the law was to make electricity cheaper for average folks. The idea was to give people the freedom to choose whether to keep buying from old-fashioned, regulated public utilities like BGE or PEPCO, or sign contracts with a whole galaxy of new, unregulated electric providers.

Utility executives who pushed the scheme made millions.

But customers did not make out so well. Two decades after the deregulation law passed, a pair of authoritative reports -- by the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel and the Abell Foundation -- have concluded that Maryland rate payers were ripped off and are now paying more, not less, as promised.

Ecco Press

Climate change is one of the most important public policy issues facing the world. But many elected officials, and even news organizations, still portray global warming as a controversial and disputed scientific theory, with arguments on both sides.

For example, here’s the President of the United States.  “Obama was talking about all of this global warming. And a lot of that is a hoax, it’s a hoax,” President Trump said at a rally. “I mean, it’s a money-making industry, okay? It’s a hoax.”

But climate change is not a hoax, or even something that scientists with supercomputers have predicted for the future. The geological record of the Earth’s history shows that, whenever carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up, temperatures have also risen – often with catastrophic consequences.

Rocks are not political. Rocks do not have a profit motive.  So we should pay more attention to the hard, geological record of the past when discussing the future. This is a conclusion of Peter Brannen’s book, “The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions.”

Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the U.S. Senate held a confirmation hearing for Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler in the midst of the Trump Administration’s shutdown of EPA and much of the rest of the federal government.

“I am honored and grateful that president Trump has nominated me for the position of administrator,” Wheeler said to begin the hearing.

In the background, a sound of shouting erupted and then the pounding of a gavel.  “Please restore order the committee room!” the chairman said.

Protesters chanted, “Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA!” before being forced out by capitol police.

Andrew Wheeler is a controversial choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency because he formerly worked as an attorney and lobbyist for a coal mining company, Murray Energy. He also represented several other polluters regulated by EPA – including a uranium mining company, Energy Fuels Resources; a liquid natural gas export firm, Bear Head LNG Corporation; a chemical manufacturer, the Celanese Corporation, and several others.

Wikimedia Commons

Last week, amid the shutdown and paralysis of the federal government, the Maryland General Assembly took action and opened its 2019 legislative session.

Sound of gavel and voice: “I now call the Maryland Senate to order.”

The most sweeping environmental legislation being debated this year is a proposed amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would add to the state's Declaration of Rights the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. 

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, field director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network, is helping to lead the campaign for a constitutional amendment.

“The idea is to have this as a fundamental right, putting it on par with all of the other rights that we have – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press,” Cardin said. “And as such, it would be sort of written into the DNA of how we construct our society.”

Potomac Riverkeeper

With hydraulic facturing revolutionizing the oil and gas industry, and the Trump Administration pushing an “energy dominance” doctrine, pipeline construction is booming across the U.S., with nearly 15,000 miles laid last year.  That was nearly double the amount the year before.

But two major gas pipeline projects in the Mid-Atlantic region recently slammed into unexpected roadblocks.

In December, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond denied permits for the proposed Atlantic Coast natural pipeline that would run 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. The $7 billion project would have ripped through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests in Virginia, and crossed the scenic Appalachian Trail.

In a ruling that drew on language from Dr. Seuss’ classic book “The Lorax,” the three judge panel said that the Trump Administration’s U.S. Forest Service had betrayed its core mission of advocating for nature by rubber-stamping approvals for the pipeline.

Baltimore Waterfront Partnership

Mr. Trash Wheel is a water-driven trash-interceptor and collection machine that was installed four years ago at the mouth of the Jones Falls, where it empties into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

It was invented by Baltimore entrepreneur John Kellett and has succeeded in collecting more than 1.5 million pounds of garbage over the years. It has also collected a large social media following, with 30,000 followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Adam Lindquist is director of the healthy harbor initiative of the Waterfront Partnership, which owns Mr. Trash Wheel.  I asked: are you planning another?

Lindquist: "The fandom behind Mr. Trash Wheel has been so supportive. It actually allowed us to crowd fund a second trash wheel, which we installed in Canton in 2016.  We call her Professor Trash Wheel.  And right now, the Maryland Port Administration is in the process of installing a third trash wheel, which they call Captain Trash Wheel."

Mr. Trash Wheel has become a cult figure in Baltimore, so much so that he’s even inspired his own song. It was written by Jonathan Jensen, a bassist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Why did he write it?

 

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

    

Kevin Omland, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, stands below a highway overpass towering above a wooded stream valley in the Patapsco Valley State Park, just southwest of Baltimore.

 

He aims his binoculars up at a scraggly nest of sticks that ravens built in the steel beams beneath Interstate 195.  

“Give yourself a second and you can see three young,” Omland said. “They are hanging out there quite peacefully. Not flapping, maybe stretching a little bit.”

“Wow!"  I replied. "Three large, black, sinister looking dudes sitting up on their nest under the bridge -- kind of ominous."

“Tom, you’re squinting incorrectly. Those are beautiful creatures,” Omland said. “They are going to have marvelous iridescent plumage in just a few days.”

Common ravens, or Corvus Corax, are – of course – beloved in Baltimore, with their ties to Edgar Allan Poe and our NFL team.  But historically, around the world, ravens have been seen either as harbingers of death – because of their habit of eating dead animals and people – or, alternatively, as godlike tricksters, because of their intelligence, dexterity, and bizarre vocalizations.

Tom Pelton

Last week, the Trump Administration announced proposed new regulations that would eliminate federal Clean Water Act protections for 51 percent of wetlands in the U.S. and at least 18 percent of streams.

Republicans at an EPA press conference portrayed the rollback as relief for family farmers. Farmers allegedly faced bureaucratic permitting requirements just to use lowlands with puddles on their own property under wetlands regulations imposed by President Obama in 2015.

Here’s Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas:

”On behalf of the farmers and ranchers and growers that I am privileged to represent, thank you,” Roberts told to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler during the press conference.  “Thank you to the administration. Thanks to the EPA for your leadership.  And thank you for taking this tremendous positive step forward and eliminating onerous and burdensome regulations while protecting our nation’s water supply.”

But this claim of over-regulation was misleading. Obama’s 2015 “Waters of the US” Rule explicitly stated that it did not apply to puddles, and the regulations exempted most farming activity. In reality, the rule had little to no impact on farming.

What the regulations did do was to clarify that real estate developers could not build sprawling subdivisions on farmlands that had scattered wetlands on them, or intermittent streams, without first obtaining a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA.

JeepersMedia

Biologists have long raised concerns about the ecological impact of the world’s most popular weed killer, RoundUp.

RoundUp’s active ingredient, glyphosate, kills milkweed plants in and around farm fields and on roadsides, depriving monarch butterfly caterpillars of their sole source of food. This has contributed to a 90 percent decline in monarch butterflies over the two decades RoundUp has been widely sprayed on genetically-modified corn and soybean crops.  

But the herbicide has also unleashed a second trend: a rash of lawsuits. People suffering from a form of cancer allegedly linked to RoundUp have filed more than 9,000 lawsuits against the weed-killer’s manufacturer, Monsanto, and its German parent company, Bayer pharmaceuticals.

Environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. represented a California man dying of lymphoma who in August won a $289 million jury verdict against Monsanto and Bayer.

“Lee Johnson was a California public school ground superintendent, and part of his job was spraying for weeds on the playing fields and on the school grounds,” Kennedy said. “And he used a 50 gallon tank of Monsanto’s herbicide RoundUp, and he often got the spray on himself.  And he ended up getting non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a particularly virulent form of the disease.”

U.S. Geological Survey

Nutria, also called Myocaster coypus (latin for mouse beaver), are large rodents native to South America that wreaked havoc on the Chesapeake Bay's wetlands when they were imported in the 1940's for the fur trade.

But now nutria face their last stand on Maryland's Eastern Shore.  There are almost none left alive after an intensive, more than decade-long trapping campaign by federal and state government agencies.

Wildlife managers conducted a successful eradication campaign against the invasive species because they eat the roots of wetlands plants. This accelerates the erosion of marshes that are important breeding grounds for fish and birds, and also work as water pollution filters that clean the Chesapeake Bay.

Tom Pelton

Last week, on Black Friday, the Trump Administration released a Congressionally-mandated scientific assessment of the impact of climate change. The report examined the future American economy, predicting that wildfires, droughts, and floods will impose hundreds of billions of dollars in costs by the end of the century if nothing is done.

President Trump told reporters he does not believe the scientists – even though they are his own scientists. But you don’t need to believe scientists to accept climate change.  All you have to do is believe your own eyes.

In California, we are seeing record-breaking wildfires.  And in the Chesapeake Bay region, we are losing acres of land every year to rising sea levels and sinking lands. Among the many places you can see it is down in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where forests and farm fields are being killed by the ever-encroaching salt water.

On Sunday, I took a drive down to the far southern end of a long, narrow, finger of land called Hooper’s Island, where the bay often laps across the road.

VCU News Service

Atlantic sturgeon are dinosaur-era fish with bony plates and sandpaper hide that were once the kings of the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways along the East Coast.

These giants with long snouts, whiskers and soft mouths were once so common that during their spring spawning runs up rivers, their bodies – sometimes 15 feet long and 800 pounds – would crowd streams like living logjams.

Sturgeon were a mainstay in the diet of many Native Americans, who speared the fish from canoes and used every part of the animals.  English colonists, however, regarded sturgeon mostly as nuisance and a trash fish.

That was until the 1870's, when a vast industry developed to slaughter sturgeon for their eggs, also known as caviar. 

By 1900, virtually all sturgeon in North America were wiped out – the passive creatures speared by the millions as they traveled up streams, their bodies left to rot. And then the caviar industry moved on to Russia. 

For decades, biologists in the Chesapeake Bay region assumed Atlantic Sturgeon were virtually extinct, harmed also by pollution and dams.  A few old adult sturgeon were found at the far southern end of the Bay – in the James River – but there were no young anywhere, foreboding ill for the survival of the species.

But then… something miraculous happened.

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