Eutrophication of Chesapeake Bay: What is the solution?
Causes and Solutions to the Water Pollution Problems of Chesapeake Bay's Waterways
Chesapeake Bay, the largest inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, has been plagued with pollution for hundreds of years. Originally described by Captain John Smith in the early 1600's as having clear water with underwater grasses, oyster reefs, and abundant fish, the Bay today is on the Environmental Protection Agency's "Dirty waters" list (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "Water Pollution in The Chesapeake Bay"). Polluted with nitrogen and phosphorous, among other pollutants, the Bay's inhabitants, both in the animal kingdom and the plants, are in severe danger of destruction, unless humans interfere with aggressive action. This paper will discuss the reasons for the eutrophication of Chesapeake Bay, the consequences of that eutrophication, and possible solutions to the problem.
Located off the coast of Eastern Maryland and Eastern Virginia, Chesapeake Bay's length is 200 miles, and its width ranges from four to 40 miles. Many rivers and streams, including the James, York, Rappahannock, Potomac, Patuxent, and Susquehanna rivers, join the bay (Encarta, "Chesapeake Bay"). Home to more than 2700 species of plant and animal life, including oysters, the blue crab, and over 150 species of fish, the Bay has historically provided settlers and Native Americans with vital natural resources (Virginia Natural Resource Leadership Institute (VNRLI), 1). At its healthiest in the early 1600's, the Bay rated an estimated100 on a scale of 100 in terms of health, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "2002 State of the Bay Report," 1).
As of 2002, the CBF's Report listed the Bay at 27, one point lower than in 1999 and 2000 (CBF, "2002 State of the Bay Report," 1). Home to approximately 15 million people (VNRLI, 1), the Bay is a victim of eutrophication, a "condition in an aquatic ecosystem where high nutrient concentrations stimulate blooms of algae" (Environmental Protection Agency, 8). While this type of condition happens naturally in some cases, humans in the Bay areas have historically increased the rate of this process through pollution (Environmental Protection Agency, 9).
The increase in certain types of pollution cause algal blooms, or large growth of algae whose growth interferes with the health and diversity of any living species within the ecosystem. The blooms do this in two ways. First, the large algae blooms block sunlight within the water, causing grasses living underwater to die. The death of these grasses causes a lack of food and shelter for other creates who rely on those grasses. Secondly, as the blooms die and decompose, vital oxygen is used, creating a lack of useable oxygen for the remaining species (EPA, 9).
In the Chesapeake Bay area, these large algal blooms have created one of the largest "dead zones" ever recorded (CBF, "CBF Takes Legal Action to Compel EPA to Enforce the Clean Water Act"). "Dead Zones" are areas in which the algal decomposition is so vast, there is literally not enough oxygen for any other species to survive, and thus, all living creatures, both plant and animal, within that zone perish (CBF, "Water Pollution in The Chesapeake Bay"). This type of high algal activity tends to happen in the Bay below depths of 5-10 meters (Bratton, 1).
Under normal conditions, nitrates and phosphorous are essential to the Bay's creatures and life. However, as the levels of those and other toxins rise, the quality of the Bay water decreases. As the quality decreases, the plant and animal life begins to suffer, and without any type of intervention, the area would eventually become a giant "dead zone" (Hoagland, "Bay Cleanup Plans Fail to Deliver").
There are many causes for the eutrophication of Chesapeake Bay, and the solution to combating those causes first relies on understanding them. The true problem began with the first developers of the Bay area. When Captain John Smith first described the Bay, the area had been mostly untouched by humankind, and consisted of buffers consisting of forests, open spaces and wetlands (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "2002 State of the Bay Report," 1). However, once development began, the disorganized growth stripped the Bay of those buffers, and pollution is allowed to run freely into the waterways (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "2002 State of the Bay Report," 2). The forests and open lands have been replaced by the growth of farmland, factories, and cities, which add not only to the dissolving buffers, but also to the pollution problem itself.
Aside from the loss of buffers, the farms, factories and cities also produce over 300 million pounds of pollution nitrogen that reaches Chesapeake Bay each year (CBF, "Water Pollution in The Chesapeake Bay"). This amount is over six times the amount scientists say is a healthy amount for the Bay (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "2002 State of the Bay Report," 2). In addition, massive amounts of phosphorous, mercury, and other toxins are flushed into the Bay each year (CBF, "Water Pollution in The Chesapeake Bay"). The amount of mercury in the Bay in 2002 was 3 to 18 times the level the EPA considers "hazardous" (EPA, "Mercury Contamination in the Chesapeake Bay").
The major cause of this pollution is agricultural runoff, which constitutes roughly 40% of the nitrogen pollution in the Bay, and approximately 50% of the phosphorous. In addition, Maryland's very large chicken production plants produce vast amounts of waste, contributing to the Bay's pollution levels. These large scale plants, mainly located on the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, house 1000 chicke3ns per human, and chicken waste produces 4 times the amount of nitrogen and 24 times the amount of phosphorous as of hog or cattle waste (CBF, "Water Pollution in The Chesapeake Bay").
In addition to the agricultural pollution, land-based pollution such as power plants, vehicles, urban runoff, and human sewage treatment plants contribute to the rapid eutrophication process in the Bay, as does the use of fertilizer in suburban areas (CBF, "Water Pollution in The Chesapeake Bay"). According to CBF's detailed analysis published in 2002, Sewage Treatment Plants: The Chesapeake Bay Watershed's Second Largest Source of Nitrogen Pollution, only ten of more than three hundred sewage treatment plants in the bay areas have the technology to reduce nitrogen (CBF, "CBF Takes Legal Action to Compel EPA to Enforce the Clean Water Act").
Finally, there are some natural causes for the increase eutrophication in Chesapeake Bay. As rains in the area increase and decrease, runoff from the wetlands and marshes also carries nitrates to the Bay. As spring approaches, longer periods of daylight mean more sunlight for the phytoplankton and algae to grow. As they grow, the remnants of last years blooms begin to die, depleting the water of the oxygen needed for the survival of the other creatures. While some of this is normal in any ecosystem, the Bay's rate is much faster than other areas, due to the massive amounts of algae already in the waterway (Williams, 27).
With all the sources for pollution in Chesapeake Bay, it is difficult to know where to begin an attempt at a solution. When the issue was first documented in the early 1970's, the effort to correct the pollution issue was weak, at best. In 1980, conservation efforts were stepped up with the establishment of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, in which Maryland and Virginia joined forces to begin to combat the problem. They were later joined by Pennsylvania in 1985 (VNRLI, 1).
In 2000, the Chesapeake 200 Agreement was enacted. This agreement was the joint effort of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., the E.P.A, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The agreement was intended to call for the development of specific plans to reduce the pollution of the Bay by the year 2002 (VNRLI, 2).
However, by this year of 2004, the implementation of plans has not yet begun, nor have the plans even been written (Hoagland, "Bay Cleanup Plans Fail to Deliver"). The goal, however, is to reduce the nitrogen pollution enough to raise the health index, currently at 27, to 40 by 2010, and to 70 by 2050 (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "2002 State of the Bay Report," 2). According to the EPA and the CBF, this would require a reduction of nitrate pollution of roughly 150 million pounds a year, resulting in a health index of 40. By 2050, the maximum nitrate pollution levels would have to be reduced to 110 million pounds per year (CBF, "CBF Takes Legal Action to Compel EPA to Enforce the Clean Water Act").
In an outline of priorities, set in June of 2003, the CBF, APA, and other agencies finally put forth their plans to implement the changes needed for the expected results of the 2000 Chesapeake Bay Agreement. The main priority is that of controlling the sewage pollution in the areas. By implementing state and federal programs to assist sewage plants in affordable state-of-the-art nitrate control technologies, the Commission estimates they could quickly achieve one third of the total nitrate reduction necessary (CBF, "CBF's Top Priorities for EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program").