According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), upgrades in wastewater treatment over the last twenty years have significantly lowered the amount of nutrient pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay, effectively meeting the sector’s 2025 goals under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, a decade early.
Since 1985, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from wastewater in the Bay watershed have decreased by 57 percent and 75 percent, respectively—this despite an increase in both population and the volume of wastewater to be treated. Thirty years ago, wastewater accounted for 28 percent of nitrogen pollution and 39 percent of phosphorus pollution; the sector now accounts for just 16 percent of the overall loads of each pollutant.
“The wastewater sector is leading the way at this point in our efforts to restore the Bay and local waters,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin in a release. “While we’ve reached a critical milestone in reducing pollution from wastewater plants, we need to keep up the momentum and ensure that other sectors do their share.” Garvin and other officials announced the news Tuesday at Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes portions of six states and D.C., is home to 472 municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants. Over the last 30 years, improvements at the ten largest of these treatment plants have prevented 240 million pounds of nitrogen and 48 million pounds of phosphorus from flowing into the Bay.
Scientists expect low river flow and reduced nutrient-rich runoff from the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers this spring to result in an average to slightly smaller-than-average dead zone in the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay this summer.
Aquatic life—from blue crabs to underwater grasses—relies on dissolved oxygen to survive. When nutrient-fueled algae blooms die and decompose, the resulting areas of little to no oxygen, known as dead zones, can suffocate underwater plants and animals. The latest forecast predicts a mid-summer hypoxic, or low-oxygen, zone of 1.58 cubic miles: close to the long-term average. The anoxic, or no-oxygen, zone is expected to reach 0.28 cubic miles in early summer and grow to 0.31 cubic miles by late-summer.
This forecast, funded by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is based on models developed at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan and relies on estimated nutrient loads from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). According to USGS, 66.2 million pounds of nitrogen entered the Chesapeake Bay in from January to May 2016, which is 17 percent lower than average nitrogen loadings.
Over the next few months, researchers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will monitor oxygen levels in the Bay, resulting in a final measurement of the Bay’s dead zone later this year.
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 31 inches of water at the 29th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 12. High winds and rough waters meant this year’s “sneaker index”—the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his shoes as he wades into the water—measured far lower than 2015’s 44.5 inches.
Since 1988, the now 92-year-old Fowler—clad in his signature white sneakers—has held the wade-in on the second Sunday in June, to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. The event moved to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in 2010 after decades on Broomes Island.
In his youth, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But nutrient and sediment pollution in the river have led to degraded water clarity and fueled algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the river bottom. The 1960s sneaker index of 57 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River.
Earle Peterson of Cooperstown, New York, owns the nearly 1,200 acres of land that make up The Greenwoods Conservancy. Peterson works with the Otsego Land Trust to permanently preserve the land, ensuring that it will serve as an educational, aesthetic and environmental resource for the surrounding community for years to come.
With Peterson behind the wheel of his old pickup truck, he took our photographer on a tour of Greenwoods on a spring day last year. Passing a roadside pond, he observed a couple of Canada geese.
“These aren’t corporate geese—these are wild ones,” Peterson said. “Now these same geese could very well winter in Chesapeake—and follow the river from beginning to end.”
As the truck bounced over dirt and gravel roads, the conversation shifted to the Susquehanna River, and Peterson was succinct in his thoughts, as someone who lives much closer to its headwaters in Cooperstown than its mouth in Havre de Grace, Maryland.
“It isn’t just that wide expanse down there,” Peterson said.
Learn more about Peterson and The Greenwoods Conservancy.
Throughout Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week, we'll be sharing the stories of people who live, work and play in the Chesapeake region. Join the conversation on social media: #HumansOfTheChesapeake
Image by Will Parson