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Making a difference for the bay

With every new image of a pelican coated in tarry black goo or of the carcass of a dolphin rotting on a shoreline stained with the oil that has been blown from the bowels of the earth, the reality of the tragic environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico becomes ever starker. What started as a terrible oilfield accident that claimed the lives of 11 men has expanded into a crisis of proportions that could not have been imagined — mitigated only by the fact that more human lives have not been lost since the initial explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil platform.

Here in Virginia, where the water has always held such a place of importance in our economy, our leisure and our sense of natural beauty, the mind reels at the devastation that would follow on the heels of such a catastrophe transplanted into the Atlantic Ocean or the Chesapeake Bay. Could Virginia survive the dead zone that would become of the Bay?

In fact, however, the Bay already is sick. Farms, factories, cities, and suburbs have replaced much of the natural filter provided for the bay by open space, forested buffers and wetlands. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the change has impaired water quality so severely that the Chesapeake Bay is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s “dirty waters” list.

Things are so bad that the Chesapeake Bay watershed scores only a 28 out of 100 on the CBF’s most recent health index. The Bay would have scored a 100 on that index when Europeans arrived on its shores in the 1600s. Closer to home, the Nansemond River, one of the bodies of water that feeds the Bay, has become unsafe for swimming and shellfishing during the past 15 years because of bacterial levels.

The CBF’s positions on agriculture, housing and commercial growth sometimes put the organization at odds with developers, homeowners and local governments, and there is plenty of room for debate on whether the potential for “saving the Bay” is worth the affront to property rights that ensues when people are enjoined from using their land in the pursuit of their own happiness.

Such academic positions, however, become harder to hold under the harsh light of the images coming from the Gulf of Mexico. And as people join together to fight the spread of the oil down there, it is suddenly even more encouraging to see people around here — as they did on Saturday — putting on their gloves, picking up “grabbers” and heading down to the waterfront to pick up trash.

Saturday’s Clean the Bay Day event may have made only a small difference in the actual health of the bay’s watershed. But in the conscience of the community it means even more: It proved that people can be motivated to do something other than sit around, watching the television news and being horrified.

Give them a goal and the right tools, and they’ll set out to make whatever difference they can.