Monday, November 14, 2005

Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has released its annual report on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its inhabitants. (The report is available online here.) This year the overall score is 27 out of 100, the same as last year and similar to scores in the previous few years. This comes to a 'D' on the foundation's grading scale. The low score is somewhat disheartening in that it marks little progress since a regional agreement made in 2000 to address many of the problems cited in this year's report.

One of the worst problems remains dissolved oxygen levels, which hit records lows this year. As a result 41% of the bay had oxygen levels that were too low to support marine life. The "dead zone" this year reached from just south of Baltimore all the way south to the mouth of the Rappahannock River, and oxygen levels remained poor as far south as the mouth of the York River. The culprit is the large amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that washed into the bay in the spring. Nitrogen and phosphorus increase the growth of algae, which in turn deprives the water - and anything living in it - of oxygen.

Nitrogen and phosphorus enter the watershed through several sources: agricultural runoff, urban runoff, pollution from power plants, and sewage treatment. Agricultural runoff is one of the heaviest sources of nitrogen pollution because of its use in fertilizers. Maryland has a program underway to reduce this part of the problem:

To help reduce this runoff, the foundation next year will ask the state for an additional $120 million for programs to encourage farmers to plant buffer strips along streams and cover crops during the winter to absorb nutrients, Baker said.

The state made a record $5 million available this year to help pay for farmers to plant winter cover crops. The money will allow 950 farmers to plant about 150,000 acres this winter with wheat, barley, rye and other crops not normally planted in the off-season.

These plantings will help absorb fertilizer left over from the summer growing season, said Sue DuPont, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "It's a great way to control soil erosion," she said.

Sewage treatment remains a major problem as well. This article suggests that there is a plan in place in Maryland to reduce pollution from sewage. DC also has had well-publicized problems with sewage pollution; a solution appears to be in the works thanks to a legal settlement.

According to the Post article, the foundation's president thinks nitrogen reduction is key:

Baker praised the plan of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) to upgrade the state's sewage treatment plants to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus emissions. "We could get 80 percent of the way" toward the 2010 goals, Baker said, by improving sewage treatment plants and reducing agricultural runoff throughout the watershed, an effort he estimated would cost $6 billion over the next six years. Reducing nitrogen, he added, would improve the bay's health in at least half the categories measured.

"They're proven strategies that can work, and farmers have shown willingness. . . . What they need is the funding assistance," Baker said.