Opinion: Mother Nature Teaches Patience; Demands Character

Commentary by Karl Blankenship

In this instantaneous age, where e-mails arrive every few seconds on our smartphones and we can order a package from across the country at night and have it arrive on our doorstep the next morning, Mother Nature is intent on testing our patience.

So much in the natural world refuses to heed our desire for instant response that it seems she’s posing a question: “Are you truly serious, or is this a momentary whim?”

The latest evidence comes from a U.S. Geological Survey study of the time lags between when cleanup actions are taken and when they manifest themselves in Chesapeake Bay water quality improvements. These time lags are turning out to be longer than previously recognized.

That is especially true on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where recent research shows that fertilizers placed on fields as far back as the 1960s — and even earlier — are only now making their way into streams after decades of travel through the Delmarva Peninsula’s unusually slow-moving groundwater.

The finding means that many of the water quality benefits of actions being taken today won't be fully realized for decades. It is a stark reminder that the payoff for actions can be slow and it is a test of our character, as a society, as to whether we can stick with it. And if we can’t, then maybe we deserve what we end up with.

But Mother Nature has rewarded patience around the bay. Fifteen years ago, there were hints that sturgeon — a species once written off — might still be in the bay, or at least in the James River. Now we are learning that sturgeon numbers are growing in the James — and they are starting to show up in other places, like the Nanticoke in Maryland, where this fall one leaped into the boat of an unsuspecting fisherman

It was patience — and management — that helped striped bass and blue crabs to rebound around the bay. Let’s also not forget that the Patapsco River, which flows through Baltimore’s industrial heart and one of the East Coast’s largest ports, whose health has slowly improved enough that biologists recently stocked it river herring, another beleaguered species. If the herring can make a go of it there, it’s good news not only for the troubled species, but a sign of hope for a river once written off by many.

Success in all of these efforts, as will be the case for water quality, will be measured in many years, or decades, but in all of them we see cause for hope, and patience.

And consider this. Time lags don’t just delay good things. They also delay bad things. Blue catfish were introduced into the James River in the mid 1970s, but there was a lag of nearly 20 years before the population exploded to the point where, in terms of biomass, it became the dominant predator that now plagues the James and other rivers.

The recreational fishery managers that introduced the blue catfish thought they were doing something good. They couldn’t foresee a future in which massive blue catfish populations could threaten native species. But they’ve given us a lesson to take to heart.

As we work, and wait, to resolve past pollution problems, it is incumbent upon us to make sure we weigh actions we take now for our own convenience against what harm they may do in the future — and recognize we can’t always fully predict those impacts. Delmarva farmers in the 1960s never dreamed their actions would be degrading the Chesapeake Bay more than half a century later, yet they are.

Likewise, people need to be vigilant that any hydrofracking being done today to access deep natural gas reserves in Pennsylvania — and potentially Maryland and Virginia in the future — is done in a way that ensures no future harm to resources, lest future generations pay a price for our energy appetites of today.

But there is another lesson we can take from this. Slow down, look out the window, or better yet, go outside and walk, and reflect on the world, what it was like before, and what it might be like in the future. Better, or worse? Are we able to have some patience and take the long view; if not for ourselves, then for our children? I think I will turn off my cell phone and ponder that before my next e-mail arrives.

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Chesapeake Bay Journal. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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