As the result of the kindness of three local newspapers and their editors, NAPS is beginning its third year of “Stewardship Tips.” We want to thank the editors and staff of the Northumberland Echo, the Rappahannock Record and the Northern Neck News for helping us with this educational effort. Rather than advocating positions, we try to provide information so that people can make wise decisions about the future of the Northern Neck.
Articles to date have covered topics such as shoreline erosion, oysters, sources of potable water, sewage, and the special responsibilities that waterfront property owners bear in being stewards of the environment. If you missed a Stewardship Tip, they can all be found, along with links to other sources of information, at the NAPS web site.
A central theme in most of these articles is the fact that Chesapeake Bay is “impaired” under the Clean Water Act. The primary cause of the impairment is that we are adding too much dissolved nitrate to the Bay. Acting as a fertilizer, the nitrate causes the rapid growth of tiny suspended algae. The algae cloud the water, limit light penetration, and shade out Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) that forms a critical habitat for juvenile organisms like fish and crabs. Ninety percent of the Bay’s SAV beds no longer exist. If the tiny suspended algae become extremely abundant, they die and rot. The process of decomposition consumes dissolved oxygen in the water, stressing, or even killing animal life.
It is easy for people who live in the Northern Neck to dismiss this issue, and blame people who live elsewhere for most of the problem. In fact, people who live elsewhere are responsible for most of the problem. All forms of high temperature combustion produce small amounts of nitrate from the nitrogen and oxygen gas present in air. About 25% of all nitrate that enters the Bay watershed is transported by the wind, from power plants and vehicles from as far away as the mid-continent. Global warming, acid rain from both nitrate and sulfate, and mercury pollution are all the consequences of fossil fuel combustion, especially the combustion of coal. Large municipal wastewater treatment plants, many of which are outdated technologically and are badly in need of upgrades, are a second major source of nitrate to the Bay. You can help by lobbying your legislators to pass bills authorizing funding to upgrade these facilities. More information can be found at www.cbf.org, the web site of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
This said, we can’t blame folks elsewhere for the problems in our local waterways. The nitrate that is over-fertilizing our local creeks and rivers, making them green and turbid, is largely derived from our local actions. A major source of nitrate, which often is ignored, is our groundwater. About a third of our ain (about 44 inches per year) percolates down through the soil to the water table. The water, now called groundwater, then flows underground, carrying substances dissolved along the way, and seeps into the nearest waterway. Our local groundwater contains, on average, about 5 milligrams of nitrate per liter, more than ten times “background levels”, and not too much less than the discharge from a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant. The nitrate comes from our septic systems (especially those close to waterways) and from over-fertilization by both the average citizen and by agricultural practices.
There are many actions we can take, all of which will improve the water clarity in our local creeks and rivers and the health of our local marine ecosystem:
- Maintain creek banks to minimize erosion.
- Promote the growth of marsh grass by clearing marshes of overhanging branches so that sunlight can penetrate, or by planting grass.
- Keep marshes free of invasive Phragmites.
- Grow oysters or support oyster restoration efforts.
- Always boat at a speed so as not to make waves larger than nature makes.
- Minimize the use of water to conserve artesian groundwater and minimize the burden on septic systems.
- Maintain septic systems wisely minimize both solids and water that go into them, never add harsh chemicals, and have them inspected every few years.
- Never over-fertilize.
- Abandon open lawns adjacent to the water in favor of trees and other plants with deep roots that use the nitrate-laden groundwater before it gets into the creeks. We should strive for vegetated strips (riparian buffers) at least 50 feet wide with a complete leaf canopy alongside all our waterways, but especially between our septic systems and the water.
- Never throw anything into the water. Nothing humans added to the water helps improve the marine environment.
NAPS looks forward to hearing from all citizens about things we can do to become better stewards of our environment, to guarantee an enjoyable and profitable future for all our citizens, and “growth with order and beauty.”