The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has “graded” Chesapeake Bay since 1998, and notes that progress toward restoration has stalled. They report for 2004 (www.cbf.org) “This year the state of the Bay languishes, unchanged from last year. It scores a dismal 27, a D.”
There are two things wrong with the statement “It scores a dismal 27, a D.” First, a score of 27 out of 100, as any educator will tell you, is an unacceptably low “F” for “Failure.” And second, the Bay doesn’t deserve a grade, we do. The fault lies with us, the people, for failing to take the necessary action, including educating ourselves, electing the appropriate officials, and being willing to commit the resources to improve the Bay.
When the poor condition of the Bay was first recognized, it soon became clear that the cause is too much nitrate and phosphate entering the water. The availability of chemical fertilizers and population growth, especially urbanization, had increased the nutrient load to the Bay far beyond the natural capacity to consume the fertilizer without harm. Except for banning phosphate detergents, little of significance has been done to address the problem, although there has been a lot of verbiage and “more study.”
The easiest source of nitrate and phosphate to reduce is in the effluent from wastewater treatment plants. Wastewater treatment was originally designed to keep pathogens and nasty odors away from the public, and no thought was given to the fact that wastewater treatment returns the fertilizer used to grow the food we eat back to the environment. The technology to remove a great deal of the nitrate and phosphate from the wastewater stream (called tertiary sewage treatment) now exists, but has not been widely implemented. Why not? Because the public has not demanded it. The public complains when told that tertiary treatment will increase their wastewater bills.
The largest source of nitrate and phosphate is from agricultural practices, and is more difficult to address. Fertilization is less than 100% efficient under the best of circumstances. Can farmers be blamed for trying to maximize crop yields when they have no control over the weather, pests or commodity prices? But there are proven Best Management Practices to reduce agricultural pollution. The Department of Conservation and Recreation recently told me “nutrient management plans save farmers money.” Yet only 25% of Virginia farm acreage is under nutrient management plans, most of that associated with highly inefficient animal waste rather than chemical fertilization. It is also well known that 100-foot buffers of mature trees, shrubs and grasses between agricultural land and the water remove some of the nutrients from the groundwater and retard runoff. Yet there still exist fields with no buffer, and many homeowners do not grow trees between their septic system and the water, despite the fact that, inland of where they live, agricultural lands contribute nitrate to the groundwater.
Another reason water quality in Chesapeake Bay has not improved is that existing laws are written permissively. For example the Chesapeake Bay Act permits farming within 25 feet of the water, “when agricultural best management practices which address erosion control, nutrient management, and pest chemical control, are being implemented on the adjacent land.” Desirable as the control practices may be, a 25-foot buffer cannot support mature trees, and it is the mature trees with their deep roots that tap the groundwater and consume some of the excess fertilizer from the agricultural land.
Yet another reason the water quality in Chesapeake Bay has not improved is that existing laws are not enforced. Lancaster and Northumberland Counties have yet to implement mandated septic tank pump-out, which has been law for many years. The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) sewage sludge regulations state (12VAC 5-585-550A) “The applied nitrogen and phosphorus content shall be limited to amounts established to support crop growth.” If the law was being enforced, phosphorus-rich sewage sludge (biosolids) could not be applied to most Virginia soils, because, as a recent publication states (Agriculture and Phosphorus Management: The Chesapeake Bay, A. N. Sharpley, ed., 1999) “much of the crop land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is now considered “optimum” or “excessive” in phosphorus from an agricultural perspective and hence needs little additional phosphorus, from any source, to ensure that economically optimum crop yields are attained (p. 66).” Why does land application of phosphorus-rich animal waste continue, in violation of the law and to no benefit of the crops? Because, as VDH told the Board of Health, more restrictions would impose “additional costs on the generators, appliers, and users of biosolids.” Never mind Chesapeake Bay.
So the reason we all get “F” is because we have not yet agreed to spend the time and capital to improve the Bay. We resist upgrading wastewater treatment facilities, or pumping out septic tanks, because it costs real dollars. We resist changes in life-style, such as abandoning chemically maintained lawns in favor of trees next to the water. We resist using nutrient management plans because they are perceived as a useless expense. Too many districts elect and then fail to monitor officials more interested in writing laws to protect a few local jobs and who look the other way about enforcing existing laws. Do the majority of the people want to improve water quality in Chesapeake Bay, or are “we” just a disgruntled minority? The “9/11 victims” (citizens) recently played a major role in ensuring passage of intelligence reform. We who are concerned about water quality in Chesapeake Bay need to act similarly. We need to take the time and commit the resources to ensure that real actions are actually instituted, rather than permitting politicians to pursue business-as-usual policies. Business-as-usual has not improved the Bay’s grade, and it won’t. If we citizens don’t act to mandate change, we deserve an “F.”