It’s true. Since 1999, Chesapeake Bay has been on EPA’s “impaired waters” list. What does this mean? Stated simply, if we do not voluntarily reduce the input of nitrate and phosphate into the Bay and its tributaries by 2010, we face Federal mandates.
Why should the Northern Neck be concerned? We only contribute a very small fraction, about 5%, of the nutrients that enter the Bay system. There are several reasons why we need to take action, rather than pointing our fingers at “those who are mostly at fault”. First, we, ourselves, ARE at fault, and it is primarily our actions that affect our local waterways. There are many potential benefits to our County if our local waterways can be made clearer. Our commercial and recreational fisheries and bird life will improve. More visitors will be attracted to our beautiful County.
The nitrate that we release to our local waterways promotes the rapid growth of suspended algae, which cloud the water and inhibit the growth of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV). SAV provides habitat for many organisms of commercial and recreational value, as well as adding oxygen to the water and retarding erosion.
What can we do voluntarily? First we need to know the sources of the nitrate and phosphate for targeting. There are four sub-equal sources:
- Wind-borne material (aerosols) - High temperature combustion in engines and power plants converts nitrogen gas into nitrous oxides (NOx) and ultimately into nitrate, which is washed out of the atmosphere by rain. Some forms of NOx along with carbon dioxide are “greenhouse gasses” which contribute to global warming and sea level rise.
- Wastewater treatment plants - These "point sources", most associated with urbanized areas (including Reedville), release nitrate and phosphate to the rivers emptying into the Bay or to the Bay itself.
- Agricultural operations - Fertilizer not utilized by crops enters our shallow groundwater, which contains about 5 mg/l (ppm) nitrate on average. Less than 1 ppm nitrate is “normal”. Shallow groundwater flows toward and into the nearest waterway at rates of about 100 meters/year.
- Most citizens - Septic systems discharge most of the nitrogen and phosphorus that we flush down the drain to the groundwater, as is also true if we use excess fertilizer. With so many homes clustered along the water, waterfront property owners are prime sources of this kind of "non-point source" nutrification.
What can we do to reduce the release of nitrate and phosphate to the environment? Here is a brief list:
- Conserve energy. Aside from reducing the emission of greenhouse gasses we need to conserve fossil fuels because they are a finite resource. The US has already pumped and burned more than half its oil. Most of Earth’s remaining oil is in the Middle East (it’s not ours). Fossil fuels will begin to run out in this century first oil, then gas, then coal. The “energy crisis” is real and looms larger each day, especially in the face of the ever-expanding human population.
- Start planning for new wastewater facilities and upgrading those that already exist to include "tertiary" treatment such as Biological Nitrogen Removal (BNR).
- Everyone, farmers included, should employ Best Management Practices (BMPs). Citizens should encourage governmental support for this important agricultural program. Agriculture is important to our County and we should all do as much as possible to encourage its responsible practice.
- Maintain septic systems wisely and have the tank pumped every 5 years. Minimize both the solids and water that go down the drain. Don't use garbage grinders/disposals.
- Minimize the use of fertilizer (and pesticides, herbicides, etc.) and never use more than is recommended. Plants can only use so much N and P, and the rest is just pollution. Be especially careful within the Resource Protection Area (RPA), or within 100 feet of the water.
- Never throw anything in the water. Nature provides abundant food for our marine life. Nothing we add to the water improves the health of our waterways.
If we fail to meet EPA’s standards by 2010, what will be the consequences? We can only guess, but mandating the list of voluntary actions just described is a pretty good start. In order to “cost account” the nutrients, TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) will likely be established for each of our waterways. Suppose you were told “You must reduce the daily output of nitrate and phosphate from your property by 20%. You must submit a detailed “budget” clearly and quantitatively stating how you intend to do this, or else...”. TMDLs will certainly not be required of each of us, but we all live in the watershed of one of our local waterways. Thus we all contribute to the nutrient load of that waterway.
Let’s not wait for the pain that will certainly accompany Federal mandates. The goal is clear. Let’s all pitch in now, and voluntarily make the necessary changes in our life style to benefit the Bay all citizens of our County.