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Downstream from the Northeast: The Chesapeake’s Comeback

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Downstream from the Northeast: The Chesapeake’s Comeback

Improvements to the Bay’s Watershed

The Chesapeake Bay WatershedIt’s not every day that a wide swath of people sharing little else but a common resource join forces to reverse the resource’s degradation with admirable success.

Emerging evidence shows that that may be the case for the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, and one of the planet’s first identified marine “dead zones.” Several large rivers and countless small tributaries feed into the Chesapeake, essentially collecting the riverside effluent from six states and the D.C. metro area and concentrating it within the delicate ecosystem of the bay’s basin. The Chesapeake has suffered nutrient overloading from farm runoff, sewage treatment plants, and atmospheric deposition of nitrogen over the past several decades, and the bay’s health, along with its fish and shellfish industry, have declined sharply as a result. Algae blooms that thrive on the excess nutrients tip the ecosystem’s balance, and the bacteria that feed on them as they decay deplete the water of dissolved oxygen, causing a condition called hypoxia.

A recent study by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science found that the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone has responded to pollution control efforts of the last thirty years. The multitude of tributaries feeding the bay, the largest among them the Susquehanna River, make the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s reach quite expansive, placing it squarely downstream of much of the northeast’s prime farmland.

Among the biggest improvements in the watershed, aging sewage treatment infrastructure has been replaced, farming practices such as manure management and conservation buffer plantings have improved, and better air pollution controls in place mean less atmospheric deposition of nitrogen.

The Chesapeake Bay in MarylandThe researchers found close links between the duration of the dead zone and levels of nutrients entering the bay. Improvements also mirrored declines in Susquehanna River levels of nitrogen.

Progress is reflected mostly in late summer dead zone size and duration. Early summer dead zones have actually gotten worse in recent years, but this has been attributed to climate factors, especially trends in heavier spring rains. Heavy rains wash more nutrient-laden runoff into the Bay and cause stratification, where fresh water layers on top of heavier salt water, preventing mixing and distribution of oxygen into deeper waters. Recent trends in wind, salinity, and sea level, likely products of climate change, also contribute to stratification. Fresh water flows into the Bay were at record levels this year, and the accompanying pollution influx has been a cumulative setback. This spring saw massive oyster die-offs in the upper part of the bay, mostly because of the deluge of fresh water.

Even as human-induced progress proceeds at a crawl, then, a nature-induced backslide often confounds it.

Many farm groups in the watershed push back against EPA efforts to adhere to the Clean Water Act, including its Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) guidelines. The Farm Bureau holds that the EPA is taking over a process that the Clean Water Act intended for state jurisdiction, and is filing a lawsuit in protest. The regulatory sparring so far seems indifferent to the emerging evidence of the improved health of the Bay in response to lower nutrient loading. Interests throughout the watershed continue to fight pollution controls – from counties that don’t want to invest in more storm water controls to poultry farmers who don’t want to be held accountable for their manure.

The Chesapeake’s history illustrates that reversing the course of an entire watershed may indeed be possible, even across multiple states and industries, even when special interests dig in and constantly challenge the need for change, and even when the effects of pollution are so far downstream as to feel inconsequential and invisible to the perpetrators. It is a large mosaic of changes to make, and though many argue that the Clean Water Act was intended to be left to the states for implementation, the fact is that a clean-up effort of this scale and magnitude couldn’t be done without the unifying oversight of the EPA, and can’t continue to progress without federal leadership. There are few incentives at lower levels for anyone upstream of the problem to change course. It is amazing and encouraging to think that progress was made on this front, and can continue, even with a long list of both point and nonpoint source pollution feeding into the watershed, and the inertia and ease of the status quo.

Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

Short URL: http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/?p=15961

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