I was born in Maryland, where my uncle was a compass adjuster and nautical instrument manufacturer. Transiting the Bay south from Baltimore, he would “swing” (adjust) the ship’s compasses, and upon reaching the Virginia line, he would disembark with the Maryland pilot. He owned property at Solomons Island, and I recall being given a quarter to swim under his boat and pull up the grass so it wouldn’t foul the propeller. There probably isn’t a decent stand of grass anywhere in the vicinity of Solomons Island today. I used Chesapeake Bay as an example of an estuary in an Introductory Oceanography course at the University of Texas at Austin, and when I began teaching an introductory science course entitled “How to Live with a Planet,” Chesapeake Bay was used as an example of problems caused by the proliferating human population in a coastal environment. I considered myself reasonably well read on issues involving Chesapeake Bay, although none of my research involved the Bay. Then in 1998 I moved to a small creek (Spencer’s Creek) three miles up the Little Wicomico River in tidewater Virginia’s Northern Neck.
The first winter I wondered why the water remained green. The middle-aged owner of a nearby marine railway told me that when he was a boy he could “fill a skiff with doublers” in the creek. “Doublers” are male and female crabs swimming together in the water and mating, and I have never observed the phenomenon in the creek, perhaps because the water is too turbid to see below the surface. His father complained that his oyster grounds, at the mouth of the creek, are no longer productive. An elderly neighbor told me that when she was young she could take her skiff in the creek and collect enough oysters for dinner. I have found one live oyster in the creek. These massive changes have occurred in a few decades, and correspond to the vastly increased use of chemical fertilizers beginning about mid-century.
It is obvious that because the small creek is three miles from the open Bay, water quality problems must have a local cause. The salinity in all creeks decreases toward the headwaters because of groundwater discharge and runoff, making it impossible that water quality problems are caused by saline water from the Bay.
I emplaced several vertical PVC pipes between my drain-field and the creek in order to measure groundwater nitrate and also began measuring nitrate concentrations in shallow water wells in Northumberland County that tap the water table (unconfined) aquifer, that many people, like myself, use as a domestic water supply. It became immediately obvious that the cause of the degraded water quality in the creek is local discharge of nutrients from groundwater discharge and runoff. Nitrate concentrations in the groundwater are higher proximate to agricultural fields than they are down-flow from my septic system. Nutrification causes the prolific growth of tiny suspended plants (phytoplankton), clouding the water and preventing bottom dwelling (benthic) plants (Submerged Aquatic Vegetation or SAV) from growing. The phytoplankton die, sink to the bottom and rot, creating black, oxygen-free (anoxic) mud that stinks of hydrogen sulfide when you walk through it and the gasses bubble up. In summer, if stratification or layering develops in the water column, the water on the bottom becomes oxygen depleted to the point that benthic organisms like oysters are killed and Dead Zones develop. Northumberland County is rural and has only two small sewage treatment plants. Its “urban” Villages are small and far from the water so neither source of pollution is large. Homeowner fertilization practices certainly contribute pollution, but landscaped acreage is vastly exceeded by agricultural acreage, and it is doubtful that homeowners fertilize as heavily as do farmers. All these facts mean that local agricultural practices account for most, at least 85% according to my quantitative estimates, of the nutrient pollution of local creeks and rivers.
Nowhere had I read that the degraded water quality in small creeks like Spencer’s Creek is caused by nutrient-rich groundwater, or that summer dead zones are common. Nowhere had the role of agriculture in causing the nutrient-rich groundwater been emphasized. The scientific literature contains all this information, but it has not reached the public or political consciousness and it certainly is not widely understood. In trying to improve citizen education I joined a local organization, the Northumberland Association for Progressive Stewardship (NAPS) and submitted “Stewardship Tips” to several local newspapers (posted at www.napsva.org.) Oyster “gardening” (www.oystergardener.org) has evolved into a small commercial operation.
This web site is an attempt to document what I have learned in the last decade about the reason Bay water quality has not improved. The reason is simple. Politicians are more concerned with the demands (and campaign contributions) of special interests than they are with the Bay, despite what they say, and they do not want to do anything that might impact voters’ pocketbooks and therefore their electability.
It is just common sense that nutrients should be applied to crops only in the amounts necessary for growth in order to minimize water pollution. In the case of Phosphorus (P), a simple soil test, along with accepted crop nutrient needs is all that is necessary. Virginia does not adhere to this simple principle, despite the fact that it is required by Virginia law (9VAC25-32-600) “The applied nitrogen and phosphorous content of biosolids shall be limited to amounts established to support crop growth.” If the “Soil test Phosphorus” method (analyze the soil for P and add only what the crop requires) were mandated, more acreage would be required for the disposal of P-rich animal waste by land application because the amount of P that could be applied to each acre would be limited. Then- Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy admits that fact and defends the current State practice, stating that the soil test phosphorus method could not “… accommodate the volumes of animal and human waste generated in the watershed …” (TACMurph3R.pdf file on the “Nutrient Pollution” page). DEQ’s explanation for why the very lenient “P-Index” is used instead of the more restrictive “Soil test P” method is that “…dairy, poultry, swine, and biosolids sectors have all voiced a strong desire to have an option to use the P-index.” No wonder. The State thus certifies that the wishes of “dairy, poultry, swine and biosolids sectors” and the need to “accommodate the volumes of animal and human waste generated in the watershed” trump water quality concerns. Only legal action can resolve this issue.
Mr. Jeffrey Corbin, assistant to the Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, claimed that there would be “Revision of poultry waste management regulations to address off-site nutrient management.” in the Chesapeake Bay Program’s “2011 Milestones for Reducing Nitrogen and Phosphorus” (p. 16). Recent revisions of the Virginia Pollution Abatement Permit Regulation for Poultry Waste Management do not require nutrient management plans and do nothing to significantly reduce the nutrient, arsenic and bacterial pollution caused by this disposal practice, widely agreed to be the largest single commercial source of Bay pollution. The revisions were toothless and poultry interests trumped water quality once again. Virginia still will not admit that the economic value of a healthy Chesapeake Bay vastly exceeds the value of the poultry industry to State coffers. Chesapeake Bay does not make campaign contributions.
It is also just common sense that you do not import fecal coliform bacteria into watersheds formally impaired for the harvesting of shellfish because the water already contains high fecal coliform bacterial levels. DEQ has stated “The banning of biosolids and poultry litter are not actions which DEQ will promote.” Yet numerous DEQ bacterial TMDL reports, approved by EPA, state “The TMDL seeks to eliminate 100% of the human derived fecal component regardless of the allowable load determined through the load allocation process.” DEQ professes to be concerned about the illegal discharge of bacteria in laundry waste but not about the trillions of bacteria in each truckload of sludge or poultry litter. In a draft of the only Implementation Plan to reduce bacterial contamination that currently exists for the Northern Neck, DEQ/DCR state “CWA regulations prohibit new discharges that ‘will cause or contribute to the violation of water quality standards.’” The quotes, underlined, are from 40 C.F.R. 122.4(i). Importing sewage sludge or poultry litter into watersheds formally impaired because of high fecal coliform bacterial concentrations constitutes a “new discharge.” Not only does disposing of fecal coliform bacteria near impaired water defy common sense, it obviously violates DEQ’s stated TMDL policy, is a clear, prosecutable violation of the Clean Water Act and one more proof that the state is more concerned with the profits of a few special interests than it is with water quality. Again, legal action will be necessary to induce change.
Nobody advocates dumping raw sewage into the Bay in order to save the money needed to build or expand a wastewater facility. It is a small step to recognize that we must spend money to modernize urban infrastructure to reduce dumping excess nutrients into the Bay. A responsible government imposes taxes to guarantee the public welfare and then uses the money wisely for the purposes intended. Most people do not mind paying taxes if the results are demonstrable and the money is efficiently spent. Our irresponsible government no longer “works” and just hires more bureaucrats to populate more committees to waste more of our tax dollars without improving Bay water quality.
What must be done to improve water quality? The “light green” approach (to borrow a phrase from Howard Ernst’s new book “Fight for the Bay”) of the last few decades by organizations like CBF, the Sierra Club, other NGOs and local organizations, still in progress, has not worked and will not work. Electing enough honest people to respond to the will of the people is impossible unless we change the way political campaigns are funded. Changing the mindset at EPA from an agency reluctant to place financial or regulatory burdens on polluters, to what they are supposed to do, protect the environment, can only happen by Presidential mandate or through the courts. It remains to be seen if “change we can believe in” actually transpires.
Our capitalist democracy must change from one focused on the immediate profits for a few into one guided by the needs of future generations. It’s all a matter of morality. Unless we change our behavior, the financial well-being and quality-of-life of our children will be compromised. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a foundation of all major religions. It might be usefully reworded to “Do unto your grandchildren as you wish your fore-bearers had done unto you.” Until large numbers of people demand that water quality in Chesapeake Bay be improved, vote accordingly, and agree to change their behavior and pay for the changes that are necessary, the Bay will continue to stagnate.
My contact information can be found on posted correspondence. A link to my cv is on the Scientists page. My email is now firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond to any reasonable questions or positions that have a scientific or economic basis. Rants will be ignored.