Home » State of the Bay

State of the Bay

Water quality in Chesapeake Bay is not improving. Volunteerism has failed. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF at www.cbf.org) routinely publishes the “State of the Bay” and although their methodology is not perfect, their assessments are in accord with other, more science-based, organizations, especially the United States Geological Survey. Why, after more than 30 years of knowing that poor water quality is caused by excess nutrients, mostly from agricultural practices and urban sources, has there been no significant improvement in the water quality of Chesapeake Bay? Some agencies, really focused on not taking any meaningful action that might enrage agricultural or other special interests, focus on minor sources of pollution or point out that water quality has not degraded proportionately to population growth in the watershed, so we are making progress. This is true, but water quality has not improved. As Mark Twain said “You can be on the right track and still get run over by a train if you don’t move fast enough.”

The only regulation that has resulted in significant water quality improvement in a third of a century is the ban on phosphate detergents between 1985 and 1990. Similar regulations have also been mandated elsewhere, as in the Great Lakes. Nutrification is not a problem unique to Chesapeake Bay, or America, and the causes are the same all over the world. After quoting some of his victories, Gerald W. Winegrad, the Maryland legislator who was instrumental in legislating the ban on phosphate detergents stated: “Also notable are defeats, including my most regrettable failure, my repeated attempts to require mandatory controls on agricultural pollution, the largest single factor causing the Bay’s decline. This legislative push (1989 to 1994) could not overcome the opposition from the farm community, the agricultural lobby and their supporters in the government, and from the Schaefer [Maryland] administration. These mandatory controls are still lacking and are pivotal to Bay restoration.” (my emphasis, quoted from his “Guest Entry” in Howard Ernst’s new book “Fight for the Bay,” Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 978-0-7425-6324-7, 145pp). Truer words were never spoken.

In a democracy such as ours, the people are ultimately at fault for the lack of action to improve Bay water quality. Too few people have educated themselves responsibly about the problem and voiced their demand publicly and/or in writing, and especially with their vote. Many people are not sufficiently critical of the information they receive. Just because the information emanates from government, CBF or PhD-bearing Scientists does not mean that it is correct and unbiased. Many people are simply not interested or are unwilling to mount a sustained effort to understand a problem enough to effect change, and believe that contributing to organizations such as CBF or the Sierra Club is sufficient. It is not. Bouncing off the bureaucracy repeatedly (Correspondence) commonly achieves the desired bureaucratic goal of making the bouncer go away in frustration. When some people learn that water quality improvement will incur real costs, more expensive wastewater bills for example, they balk. Too few people have demanded that politicians take the necessary steps to “clean up” the Bay and too few people have confirmed that they are willing to pay for improved water quality.

The politicians are certainly at fault, responding to the deep pockets of agriculture, sewage sludge and municipal wastewater lobbies, and failing to educate themselves responsibly. Politicians rarely take a long-term view of any problem, and although they will vehemently deny that campaign contributions or free lunches with lobbyists sway their information base or their votes, we all know differently. Any politician who openly stated “farm profits and agricultural productivity are more important than improving water quality in Chesapeake Bay” would never be elected, yet that is government’s current position. The fact that about 40% of elected federal legislators become lobbyists is telling. It beats working for a living.

State and Federal agencies, especially the Economy Protection Agency (EPA), are at fault for favoring agricultural productivity over regulations that would result in significant improvements in water quality. They disseminate misinformation, overly optimistic projections, and rely too much on “models” rather than on hard data. All these agencies are too politicized, especially at the top, and respond primarily to short-term economic pressures. Even when the truth surfaces, as in the current federal administration’s admission that the reason we are not seriously addressing global warming is because “it would hurt the economy,” most people do not object. Cheap gasoline today is more important to most people than the inevitable long-term alternatives.

Non-governmental agencies, especially CBF, are at fault for not playing “hard-ball” with important issues like agricultural pollution, and, especially, in using the courts more. Instead, they self-promote by building visible public facilities, tout useless exercises like SAV planting that are doomed to failure until water clarity improves (although there may be educational value in the exercise), and put representatives of special interests (contributors) on important committees.

Any discussion of Bay pollution that does not list agricultural fertilization practices first must be considered suspect. “Urban runoff” is certainly a problem, and addressing it is visible to the public. The worst kind of urban runoff is called “Combined Sewage Overflow” and happens where raw sewage mixes with storm discharge during heavy rains. The Blue Plains wastewater facility (www.dcwasa.com) discharges nearly 2.5 billion gallons of mixed storm runoff and raw sewage each year. Overboard discharge from boats is a miniscule problem but is often mentioned. Few people are stupid enough to defecate directly into the water and there is probably no way to keep fishermen from urinating overboard. That said, there is no excuse for Chesapeake Bay not to be designated as a No Discharge Zone. Oysters and menhaden are often touted as solutions to the Bay’s problem because they are filter-feeders and help remove suspended algae from the water. The more filter feeders the better, and oyster reefs were once populated by many filter-feeding organisms other than oysters until they were destroyed by dredging. Desirable as they may be in reducing the turbidity of the water, more filter feeders are not the solution to the Bay’s problems.

Consider a leaking boat. Putting in a bigger bilge pump is the “engineering solution.” But the boat will eventually sink because leaks never repair themselves, and bilge pumps fail. We can’t fix the problem of too many suspended algae in the Bay with a bigger bilge pump (more oysters, menhaden and other filter-feeders.) The leaky boat can only be fixed if it is hauled out of the water and the leak repaired, no matter how painful and expensive the repairs may be. Too many algae in the Bay must be addressed by reducing their cause, which is too much nitrate and phosphate entering the Bay from inefficient agricultural fertilization practices and out-of-date urban infrastructure. Just filtering the algae out of the water only to have the organic material transferred to the bottom sediment is not a solution. We must either fix the boat, or scrap it.

Only two measurements are necessary to characterize water quality in Chesapeake Bay, the area occupied by Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) and the size and distribution of Dead zones. Other measurements are possible (and more expensive), and are touted by some agencies, in part to accomplish “more study” and delay having to act. But these two easily understood “bottom line” measurements are sufficient to characterize water quality. Until both of them improve significantly over a period of many years, no agency can claim that water quality in the Bay is improving.