Op-Ed: Has Congressman Andy Harris Forgotten Where you Live? By David Foster (Corrected Update)

Editor note: Mr. Foster has made the following correct to this opinion piece:

I wish to apologize to Congressman Andy Harris and to my readers in the Spy. I have just learned that my information regarding his vote on the Goodlatte Amendment was wrong and, in fact, Congressman Andy Harris actually voted against the Goodlatte Amendment.

While Congressman Harris and I may disagree on other issues, I want to commend him for his vote against the Goodlatte amendment for precisely the reasons that I listed in my article. I am also pleased to note that he does know where we live and understands that we really do need the assistance from the EPA in protecting us from upstream pollution originating in neighboring states.

Furthermore, while I am personally embarrassed that I failed to double check my sources regarding this vote, perhaps it does offer a reminder to all of us to carefully verify our sources before passing judgment.


J. David Foster

Every fifth grader in Maryland’s 1st District knows that we all live (on the Right side of Maryland) near the Chesapeake Bay and downstream from the Susquehanna River that flows from New York through Pennsylvania into the Chesapeake.  Unfortunately, Congressman Harris seems to have forgotten that his constituents all live downstream from two neighboring states and that the quality of the Bay and our own vital waterways are heavily dependent on the pollution control efforts made by our upstream neighbors.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 2.07.41 PM

How do we know that Congressman Harris has forgotten you?  Because earlier this month he voted in lockstep to support of an amendment authored by Congressman Goodlatte to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from protecting you from water pollution generated upstream in New York and Pennsylvania.  Now we may never know precisely why the Congressman from Virginia’s 6th District authored this amendment.  However, if you look at the map above and compare Virginia’s 6th District with Maryland’s 1st, you can be sure that Congressman Goodlatte understands geography and knows precisely where his constituents live.  Simply speaking, Goodlatte’s constituents, living in the mountains near West Virginia, may not need the EPA to protect them from out of state upstream water pollution but those of us living in the tidewater in Congressman Andy’s 1st district do.

Over the past several years Maryland farmers, factory owners and municipalities have all made serious efforts to control pollution and protect our waterways but much of that effort will be undone unless the people of New York and Pennsylvania also do their part.   Furthermore, we have to ask ourselves whether all Marylanders will continue to work just as hard once they see that their efforts can be compromised through the negligence of state and local governments upstream.

Now look again at the map below to see where Congressman Goodlatte’ constituents in Virginia’s 6th District have their homes.  Not only do none of them live anywhere near the shores of the Chesapeake but they all live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, up stream from any other state and other sources of water pollution.  Obviously, Congressman Goodlatte understands geography and even understands that water, and pollution, flows down hill and most importantly, he understands how to take care of his constituents.  

Ironically, just when Governor Hogan has decided to reexamine the Conowingo Dam to try and remove some of the sediment behind it, Congressman Harris has chosen to “pull the plug” on regulations that would hold New York and Pennsylvania accountable for reducing the sediment that flows into the Susquehanna River.

This is not a question of Republicans vs. Democrats or Conservatives vs. Liberals.  I know that there are great people on both sides of the aisle who care about the environment and who want to protect our water.  This is a question of whether Congressman Harris has studied the map and whether he knows where you, his constituents, live?

David Foster is a retired policy analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency and former Riverkeeper on the Chester River


Op-Ed: Restoring the Chesapeake, One Oyster “Cage” at a Time

crabsmallNext time you see watermen planting oysters in our rivers, recognize that they are helping to clean our water and that we all have a stake in their success.

While most farmers and many homeowners are now taking important steps to prevent topsoil and excess fertilizer from being washed into our waterways, this is often a case of too little too late. Despite efforts to plant cover crops and riparian buffers and to limit the location and quantity of fertilizer, in many areas we have a legacy of too much fertilizer and sediment that has already seeped into our groundwater and washed into our rivers. Once in our waterways, the excess fertilizer causes the microscopic algae to grow so fast that when the algae dies and decays it sucks up the oxygen critical to the life of aquatic animals. Furthermore, that decaying algae, combined with the excess sediment, then clouds the water making it impossible for subaquatic vegetation to receive the sunlight required to create protective habitat for young fish and crabs.

Historically, Mother Nature, in the form of trillions of wild oysters (Crassostrea Virginica), filtered that water (as much as 50 gallons per day per oyster) and helped remove the excess nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that depleted the oxygen and dirtied the water. For thousands of years the oysters not only provided a bountiful food supply themselves but also cleaned the water and enhanced the habitat for other flora and fauna.

Unfortunately, through a combination of pollution, disease, over harvesting, and mud that swept through the Conowingo Dam and buried the oysters, we have now lost over 95% of the oysters that used to be our partners in protecting one of the world’s great fishing and recreational areas. The challenge before us, if we are serious about protecting and enhancing our waterways, is to find ways to restore that vital partnership between mankind and the oyster in the Chesapeake Bay.

Although the research scientists at Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratories have already embarked on an ambitious program and have had success in propagating and planting oysters, the job is much too big and too important to be undertaken by government alone. Government has a vital role in studying disease and other threats to the native oyster and in propagating oyster spat for planting. But some of the greatest successes have come not through creating government controlled sanctuaries but through public/private partnerships. In these partnerships, private entrepreneurs, with valuable technical assistance from government scientists and extension agents, invest their own resources in planting, managing and harvesting oysters.

Anyone skeptical about the water quality benefits of modern aquaculture should pay a quick visit to areas of the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore or the St. Mary’s River in Southern Maryland and see how oyster planting has helped clean the water. While it is possible to simply deposit oysters on the river bottom in the right location in hopes that many will survive, the technique recommended to small businessmen by shellfish aquaculture specialist, Dr. Donald Meritt, is to protect their investment by placing the oysters in cages such as shown in the picture above.

These cages, where authorized by the Department of Natural Resources and limited to approved leases of the river bottom, can either be attached to floats on the surface or rest a few inches above the river bottom. In either case they must be clearly marked and must be placed in areas where they will not interfere with navigation or the rights of adjacent homeowners on the shore.

As Chuckie White, President of the Kent County Waterman’s Association, points out, managing oysters in these cages requires a lot more work than simply depositing young oysters on the river bottom and letting Mother Nature take care of them until they are ready for harvest. However, as Dr. Meritt has learned through his work at Horn Point, that extra work and extra investment in equipment allows the waterman to get a much higher survival rate for the oysters and a better price in the oyster half shell market. Some of the advantages of these wire containers called “cages” include:

  • protecting the oysters from poaching and predators such as the cownose rays;
  • keeping the oysters up out of the mud, and
  • enabling the waterman to readily monitor growth, clean and grade the oysters and harvest a product that will command good prices in the market place.

In addition to those advantages to the individual waterman, the opportunity to achieve higher survival rate also means more oysters and more jobs, thus providing all of us with a cleaner and healthier Chesapeake Bay and all the waterways that surround it. This is a public/private partnership that makes sense for watermen, the waterways and all of us who want to continue enjoying this land of pleasant living.


Bird Tales

Building a platform for an osprey nest in the Chesapeake watershed won’t turn you into a bird expert overnight but it is fun and you might learn a thing or two about yourself as well as these amazing raptors. Last year Mort Deckleman set up an Osprey pole for us safely beyond the end of our dock and about 20 feet above the water line. And with true beginners luck, two young ospreys, Orville and Amelia by name, soon spied my platform on their way back from South America and, after a brief courtship, quickly began building and decorating a proper nest.

I could not have been prouder and, within a few weeks, I began spreading the news and passing out virtual cigars to commemorate our new tenants and their blessed event. Now, while I have no regrets at naming our newly wed Osprey couple Orville and Amelia, we have been advised that it is not good form to name the chicks – at least not too early in the game.


In one of David Gessner’s great osprey books, Soaring with Fidel, he vividly describes a scene in which some folks installed a video camera and grew a little too attached to the young chicks.   Not content with naming the parents, the video watching community also grew very attached to the chicks, whom we will call Fatso, Fluffy and Pipsqueeky. Apparently all went well while the fishing was good and there was plenty of food to go around.

Unfortunately, whenever food was scarce, the elder chicks, Fatso and Fluffy, elbowed (winged?) their way to the front of the line and poor little Pipsqueeky often went to bed hungry. Sometimes, we were told, the mama osprey would carry some leftover food over to her littlest one but this was rarely enough.

Ultimately after several days of this, little Pipsqueeky expired and his mama gently carried him out of the nest on one penultimate flight into a nearby tree.

Then, the watchful community hovered around their video screens to see what would become of the other chicks. Would food arrive in time? Would one of the parents catch at least some little fish or eel or even a frog and bring it back to their ravenous chicks?

At long last, here to the rescue came the mama osprey with some morsel clasped firmly in her claws. Straight she flew back to the nest and in full view of the video camera to share this bit of food with her darling chicks. But just as that morsel came within video range there went up a cry that could be heard throughout the town: “NOT SQUEEKY!!”

With this story in mind, as ‘foster’ parents of our nearby ospreys, we continue to monitor progress from our back porch but wait just a little longer before becoming too attached to this next generation of osprey tenants sharing our home.

You’ll be pleased to know that last year not only did the osprey parents work together to successfully raise their one chick but they then flew off in September on their annual migration to South America and both promptly returned on St. Patrick’s Day to once again take up residence on the nest above the river behind our home. The big difference is that this year they successfully raised not just one but three chicks and the fishing must have been good because within a span of just seven weeks all three chicks had grown to the size of their parents. Then, came the great adventure as first one chick and then the other clumsily began their flying lessons, alternately “helicoptering” a few inches above the nest while madly flapping their wings.

(NOTE: I’m using the term “chick” loosely here because these fledglings were gigantic although still unable to fly and still totally dependent on their parents for room and board.)

While watching these young fledglings it is difficult not to anthropomorphize as you imagine yourself perched on the edge of that nest looking down at the water below. “How can you possibly trust those around you who madly insist that you leap out into that great unknown? Isn’t there some kinder gentler way to get down?”

At the same time, as a parent myself, I can’t help but identify with the now obviously exhausted adult ospreys who have been desperately trying to feed three rapidly growing adolescents who, despite their enormous size, are no help at all. With so much work to do, you can easily see why it would require well matched monogamous parents to share all the chores of child care, fishing and nest building and maintenance.

Think of it for just a moment. Most humans can scarcely walk by the end of their first year and even a young calf needs to do nothing more challenging than learn to eat the green grass growing beneath its feet. But a young osprey needs to grow, learn to fly and catch fish and acquire all the skills needed to survive and navigate at least 3,000 miles (and back) all within the first 3 months’ of its life.

And yet, one by one the young fledgling ospreys did finally not only make that great leap but stretched their wings and made great soaring circles in the sky. Then, when their parents and I had almost given up hope, they also began slowly to earn their own keep, occasionally catching a fish and even bringing some home for dinner.

Sadly, in just a few short weeks they will all depart but I can’t wait til next St. Patrick’s day when Orville and Amelia come home again.

David Foster writes for the Spy from his perch overlooking the Chester River.


The Role of Trust in Environmental Management

Whenever environmental advocates get together a common topic of conversation is: “What is the most serious cause of environmental degradation?” Some believe it is ignorance; others argue that it is overpopulation; while still others insist that the real culprit is human greed. Today I am going to suggest that while each of these factors play some role, one of the most serious causes – and usually the one least recognized -is the Lack of Trust among stakeholders. I’m going to start with a few examples of how this lack of trust can be so detrimental; then discuss some of the causes of distrust, and finally explore what we might do to help restore trust to better protect the environment.

Let’s start by looking at the situation of local watermen, whose livelihoods depend on the quality of our waters and the sustainability of the marine life in our waterways. In my experience, these folks know more about Callinectes Sapidus (Beautiful Swimmer, the tasty Chesapeake Blue Crab) than almost anyone else. And yet for many years Maryland watermen over-harvested these crabs, depleting their own resource, because they could not trust the Virginia watermen not to dredge for female crabs during their winter migration through the Virginia portion of the Bay to lay their eggs in the Atlantic Ocean. And, of course, those Virginia watermen were just as quick to justify their reckless practice because they had so little trust in their Maryland counterparts.

Another example involves the current controversy over the Conowingo Dam and the pollution coming down the Susquehanna. Despite the fact that most local residents recognize that protection of the Chesapeake and its tributaries depends on increased control of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment, many are still reluctant to implement the necessary local controls because they can’t trust the operators of the Conowingo Dam and the states of New York and Pennsylvania to also do their share. Likewise, factory owners are less likely to implement sound pollution control practices on their factories if they doubt that their competitors will be required to do the same.

Although former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil, proclaimed (and Eric Cantor proved) “all politics is local,” not all pollution is local. Protection of the Chesapeake Bay requires not only that people in Maryland and Virginia do their part but they must also have confidence that the folks in New York and Pennsylvania will also do theirs. In essence, even states-rights conservative legislators now understand that their constituents, living downstream from the Susquehanna, depend on the actions of the U.S. EPA to assure that the upstream states also control their pollution.

If this lack of Trust adversely impacts our ability to address domestic problems, just imagine what it does to international challenges like International Fisheries, Migratory Birds, or Global Climate Change (aka Global Warming). Whatever else you may think of Al Gore, you have to admit that he was talking about an “inconvenient” problem. This is a problem that not only threatens our livelihoods and those of our children but very inconveniently requires us to put trust in the research and control programs of people we don’t know and probably will never meet. While the human species is pretty good at responding to acute emergencies that it can touch and feel; we are not so good at responding effectively to long term chronic problems that we can scarcely see and for which the most serious impacts will likely fall on our children and grandchildren.

Not only does the lack of trust make us more reluctant to take on these environmental challenges, this same lack of trust makes pollution control far more expensive than need be. For example, World Resources Institute, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the EPA all recognize that dollars invested in controlling pollution from farm land will typically do far more to protect our waterways than dollars spent on controlling runoff from urban streets and parking lots. These environmental organizations suggest that allowing local governments to put their money where they get the biggest bang for their buck could reduce the cost of restoring the Bay by up to 50%. Despite these findings – and largely because of the lack of trust between environmentalists and farmers – the Maryland Department of Environment severely restricts Nutrient Trading strategies that would promote more cost-effective pollution control.

Ironically, many of those control strategies rejected by Maryland have already been accepted by Pennsylvania and Virginia and approved by the U.S. EPA. Examples of innovative win/win approaches that could potentially benefit many farmers while reducing the costs incurred by local governments include such control measures as: constructed wetlands as proposed by the Nature Conservancy, planting switchgrass in buffer areas previously proposed by the Chester River Association, and the innovative system of stormwater containment basins recently demonstrated by Sam Owings at Hambleton Creek Farm in Queen Anne’s County.

In emphasizing the role of trust, I am not suggesting that we blindly put faith in people we don’t know. If there was one point where liberals and conservatives both agreed with President Reagan, it was on his mantra of “Trust but Verify.” In order for Marylanders to trust people in Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania, it is important not only that those other states do the right thing but to verify that they are doing the right thing. The same is obviously true when we ask Maryland watermen to trust Virginia watermen or Maryland environmentalists to trust Maryland farmers. Fortunately, the tools needed for verification are now available and we need to make better use of them.

Just as verification is important for building trust, increasing transparency on all issues potentially impacting health and environment is critical for restoring trust. For example, a hospital on the Eastern Shore initially sought to privately clean up an accidental oil spill without providing opportunity for public notice and participation, only to find that its efforts to resist public disclosure was becoming a major cause of distrust in the community. Fortunately, that same hospital is now committed to full transparency and is currently working with the local government to provide opportunities for public meetings and full disclosure, thus taking a major step forward in restoring trust.

Once we recognize that creating distrust between different factions and stakeholders imposes needless burdens and runs counter to our common goal of improving the environment, there are numerous steps we can all take to help build trust. One of these is simply to reduce the pointless exaggerations and name calling that both sides give way to in the false hope that it helps them score points and makes them more persuasive. It must now be recognized that those false statements increase the cost and decrease the likelihood of achieving our common environmental goals.

Another basic step is simply the act of “Catching people doing something right.”   Think what it could do for mutual trust if environmental groups could praise farmers for their work on cover crops or watermen praise communities like Chestertown that have installed state of the art municipal waste water treatment or for all of us to recognize the stewardship evidenced by most watermen.

Robert Putnam, an internationally recognized sociologist and author of Bowling Alone, has documented that trust in the U.S. has declined dramatically over recent years. In part this may be attributable to the growing political rancor in Washington but Putnam also attributes it to decreased participation in cross-cutting organizations like garden clubs and bowling leagues. Most of us see diversity as a real strength of our country but ethnic and income diversity, along with our own local custom of dividing people between groups of “Come Heres” and “Born Heres,” also makes it even more challenging to create and maintain trust. While conservatives often oppose government clean-up efforts because they don’t trust government to spend their money wisely; liberals often exacerbate this problem by insisting on rules that make it impossible to get the most bang for our collective bucks.

Interestingly, one group that has the greatest stake in improving trust also has the greatest potential to promote the very cross-cutting relationships that can be so important to restoring trust. During my earlier stint as Riverkeeper on the Chester River I was pleasantly surprised to find such a broad range of conservatives and liberals, artists and businessmen, farmers, teachers and lawyers all working toward a common goal. In fact, it often appeared that the only thing these people had in common was an uncommon love of the River.

Think of the possibilities: What if trust, like the oceans and the atmosphere, were regarded as a common property resource that needs to be nourished and protected? What if cross-cutting organizations seeking to protect the environment could not only help find that elusive common environmental ground but also set an example that might even help restore that long endangered species called bi-partisanship?

~David Foster

Environmental Protection is Not an Agency!

The Spy is pleased to introduce “Seeking Common Ground,” a new column by David Foster.

Many of you are familiar with David’s previous work as Chester River Association’s Riverkeeper and from his thoughtful and informative Op-Eds in various media regarding the many environmental issues we confront on the Eastern Shore.

His credentials are impressive: 19 years as a Policy Analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Senior Environmental Advisor for Asia with United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Riverkeeper, and most recently as an instructor at Washington College’s Academy of Lifelong Learning (WC-ALL).

A world traveler and resident of Kent County, David Foster makes it clear that he is not speaking for any agency, organization or the Spy, but as an informed citizen offering his opinion so that we might enter into a dialogue to help us discover the common ground required to implement policies to shape a healthy and sustainable world.


Environmental Protection is Not an Agency

Contrary to popular opinion, environmental protection is NOT an agency but a public commitment and a movement. Don’t get me wrong. I am very proud of the nearly 20 years that I spent with the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and the work my former colleagues continue to do there. If, however, anyone believes that the legal and technical experts housed within the federal EPA or its sister organizations throughout the 50 states can protect our environmental resources alone, he or she issadly mistaken.

Real environmental protection requires the education of millions of people throughout the country and the ability to draw, not only on the expertise of scientists in laboratories, but also on the working knowledge of factory workers, farmers, watermen, local environmental associations, teachers and ordinary homeowners. Ironically, while most of us hate the idea of “Big Government,”we often forget that the best alternative to Big Government is more effective Small Government, along with better informed and more active citizens.Perhaps there are a few fields, like brain surgery or aerospace, where the work is best left to the “experts” but environmental protection is not one of them.

It was precisely this slightly offbeat philosophy regarding the need for local citizens to become more knowledgeable and more involved in protecting their own environment that caused me to agree when Jim Dissette, Managing Editor of the Chestertown Spy, recently asked me to consider writing a regular column for this internet news magazine. While the column will draw on over 40 years of local and international environmental experience, the impetus comes from a course, titled “Wet & Wild,” that I recently taught for the Academy of Life Long Learning at Washington College.I found that I really enjoyed teaching that course and, most importantly, I enjoyed the challenging questions and feedback from the participants. Hopefully this column will recreate some of that same spirited give and take. Bottom line – this is intended as an assembly of articles, primarily on serious topics, written by and for people who don’t take themselves too seriously.

As you have seen, the title that Jim and I agreed on for this column is: “Searching for Common Ground.” While the current gridlock in Washington, D.C. suggests that “Common Ground” may be an endangered species, I am convinced that such a search is well worth the effort. Please understand that by “Common Ground” I do not mean those lukewarm compromises that satisfy no one. Rather, it should be understood as the art of seeing things from another person’s point of view so that real Win/Win Solutions can be achieved. For example, in our rivers the “common ground” is often literally the soil that muddies our water and prevents the sunlight from reaching the underwater plants that provide habitat for aquatic animals. The ideal solution in this case would be a better system of keeping the valuable top soil on the land where it benefits the farmer rather than allowing it to runoff and pollute our waterways.

The current plan for the column is to publish one or two articles each month. The first few editions will focus on some of those Win/Win Solutions and the obstacles preventing their achievement. In most instances these obstacles relate to what I think of as the “AT&T” of environment. No, I am not trying to resurrect “Ma Bell” but will be writing about the role of “Awareness, Trust & Transparency” drawing examples from around the world as well as right here in Chestertown. The topics addressed will generally (but not always) focus on the environment and will often seek out controversial areaswhere we need to generate more discussion.

In the interest of providing that transparency and full disclosure, I also need to tell you a few things about my own background: First, I am both an environmental engineer and an economist. While many see environmental economics as a contradiction in terms, I’m convinced that environmentalists can learn a great deal from economics and vice versa. Second, I’m clearly not a trained journalist. Most of my writing skills came through writing letters home from places I’ve worked overseas and this probably accounts for the “storytelling style” I’ve adopted along the way. Third, while the Chestertown Spy will always have the right to publish or not publish any articles I write, the opinions I express will be my own and will not represent the Spy or any previous employer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, your positive (and negative) feedback and your suggestions for future topics will always be appreciated. In return, I promise to share my honest opinions, free from ideological or partisan spin.


David Foster