Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The State of the Chesapeake

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a series of articles on the poor health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Cleaning up the bay, which has been in serious trouble since the early 1980s is especially complicated since its tributaries pass through multiple jurisdictions; New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Virginia, and West Virginia all contain part of the watershed, which is fed by two major rivers (the Potomac and Susquehanna) and numerous smaller tributaries. That means that cleanup strategies have to be coordinated among the various stakeholders, which then have to fight their own internal battles over funding and enforcement priorities.

In the meantime, work is being left undone.

Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania all pledged that their farmers would put up fences along streambanks to keep cows out. But they didn't make it a legal requirement: Officials feared this kind of regulation would be a burden on farmers and would be difficult to enforce....

But in Virginia, many farmers simply didn't want the hassle. And reimbursement funding, which came out of state budget surpluses, was often short. From July 2006 to June 2007, Virginia turned away 144 farmers who wanted to fence off 84 miles of streambank.

Now, Virginia has reached only about 20 percent of its goal for fencing off streams. Across the Chesapeake watershed, the figure is 27 percent.
The problem with cow manure is that it contains nitrogen that feeds algae blooms, which in turn cause dead zones throughout much of the bay. Cow manure is just one of many nitrogen or phosphorus sources within the watershed. Sources include fertilizers, sewage, detergents, and septic tanks, among others. While the cleanup has effected some reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus, and stabilized some underwater life, it has fallen far short of its goals.