Highlighting the Northumberland Association for Progressive Stewardship (NAPS) annual meeting on Saturday, Feb. 21, at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Heathsville, was a presentation by Beth Baldwin of the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department (CBLAD). Ms. Baldwin addressed the issue of enforcing the Chesapeake Bay Act (9VAC 10-20-10 et seq.) available at www.cblad.state.va.us.
Ms. Baldwin emphasized that each county in Tidewater Virginia has its own Bay Act Ordinance, which is locally administered and enforced. CBLAD provides financial and technical assistance.
NAPS is becoming increasingly alarmed by the failure of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act (Bay Act) to significantly improve the Bay after nearly 15 years. It is clear that over-fertilization, or adding excess nitrogen and phosphorous to the bay, is the primary reason for the decline of the Bay's health. Nitrate and phosphate trigger the growth of tiny suspended algae that cloud the water. There are insufficient animals to eat all the algae, so the short-lived plants die and accumulate on the bottom. As the cells decay, oxygen is consumed, which stresses or even kills animals, especially in the summer.
Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV or sea-grass) provides a measure of the cloudiness of the water because the submerged grasses require light to penetrate to the bottom. There has been little, if any, improvement in the abundance of SAV in the Bay since the inception of the Bay Act in 1969, indicating that the water has not become clearer. SAV continues to occupy only about 10 percent of the area that it once occupied.
Another excellent measure of the Bay's health is the size of the Dead Zone, or the volume of water in the Bay unable to support life in the summer because of low oxygen levels. Last year the volume of the Dead Zone was the largest ever recorded (the April NAPS Stewardship Tip will provide more information about the Dead Zone.) The Bay Act is clearly not functioning satisfactorily. Several provisions of local ordinances, such as mandated septic tank inspection and pump-out as necessary, have never been implemented or enforced in Lancaster and Northumberland counties.
Responsible county officials, as directed by boards of supervisors, are intended to enforce the provisions of the Bay Act. These officials include Jack Larson in Lancaster, W. H. Shirley in Northumberland, Chris Jett in Richmond and Fay Dove in Westmoreland counties. CBLAD is assigned to periodically evaluate compliance, accept complaints, and then enforce the Bay Act as a last resort. CBLAD has only once, in 1993, requested that a county be sued for non-compliance, and only a few county evaluations have been completed. It remains to be seen how CBLAD will evaluate the two remaining Northern Neck counties (Lancaster and Northumberland) for compliance, the recommendations they will make, and time frame they will specify for the counties to address deficiencies.
Ms. Baldwin stressed that citizens have the right to submit complaints to CBLAD in writing (James Monroe Building, 101 N. 14th Street, 17th Floor, Richmond, VA 23219) or by phone (1-800-243-7229), preferably in coordination with local officials. Complaints include, but are not limited, to: (1) violations such as excessive vegetation clearance in the Resource Protection Area (RPA), also commonly called the 100-foot buffer; (2) lack of erosion or sediment control for land disturbances greater than 2,500 square feet, or (3) construction in the RPA without local authority. Formal complaints, subject to the Freedom of Information Act, will receive a formal response from CBLAD, and they require identification by name, address and telephone number. Informal complaints do not require identification, but will not invoke a formal response.
NAPS regards enforcement at local and state levels to be, at best, extremely permissive. Do we want to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and our local waterways? If the answer is NO, then let's just continue the status quo with local officials dragging their feet and CBLAD and State officials looking the other way. If the answer is YES, the time has come (and it is actually long overdue) to face the situation and accept the pain that will be inflicted by changes in our behavior.
Improving our waterways will require conscious effort and sacrifices by everyone. Farmers, silviculturists (people who develop and care for forests), homeowners and others must rigorously respect the 100-foot Resource Protection Area (RPA) with a goal of establishing large trees along all our waterways so the roots of the trees can remove some of the nitrate and phosphate from the groundwater. Septic systems must be maintained properly, and everyone must minimize the use of fertilizer (meaning nutrient management plans for nitrogen and phosphorous for all agricultural practices).
These kinds of actions have been adopted voluntarily by a very few people, and they are largely not enforced. Unless practices change, water clarity (the abundance of SAV) will not improve and the Dead Zone will continue to enlarge.