Overview

Plants and animals need nutrients to survive. But when too many nutrients enter rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay, they fuel the growth of algae blooms and create conditions that are harmful for fish, shellfish and other underwater life. In fact, excess nutrients are the main cause of the Bay’s poor health.

Why are excess nutrients a problem for the Chesapeake Bay?

Excess nutrients fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, which:

  • block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, and

  • during decomposition, create low-oxygen “dead zones” that rob the water of oxygen and suffocate marine life.

How do excess nutrients enter the Chesapeake Bay?

While nutrients are a natural part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, nutrients have never been so abundant in the environment. Before humans built roads, homes and farm fields, most nutrients were trapped and absorbed by forest and wetland plants. As these habitats were removed to accommodate a growing population, nutrient pollution to the Bay increased.

Almost all people and industries in the watershed—and even some outside of the watershed—send nutrients into the Bay and its tributaries. Nitrogen and phosphorous are the two nutrients of concern in the area. In general, these nutrients reach the Bay from three sources: wastewater treatment plants; urban, suburban and agricultural runoff; and air pollution.

  • There are hundreds of wastewater treatment plants in the watershed. In 2005, watershed jurisdictions put a new permit process in place to limit the amount of nutrients these plants could send into rivers and streams. Computer simulations of pollution controls put in place between 2009 and 2015 indicate that nitrogen loads to the Bay from wastewater treatment plants and combined sewer overflows have declined 57 percent since 1985, while phosphorous loads from the same sources have declined 75 percent.

  • Nutrients that run off of the land and into the water through urban, suburban and agricultural runoff come from a range of sources, including lawn fertilizers, septic systems and livestock manure.

  • Air pollution emitted by cars and trucks, industries, gas-powered lawn tools and other sources contributes about one-third of the total nitrogen load entering Chesapeake waterways. This air pollution can come from any location within the Bay’s “airshed,” which measures about 570,000 square miles and stretches to Canada, Ohio and South Carolina.

  • Nutrients can also come from natural sources, like soil, plant material and wild animal waste.

How much nitrogen and phosphorus enters the Chesapeake Bay?

Nitrogen Pollution

Graphic showing that 491 million pounds of nitrogen were delivered to the Chesapeake Bay between October 2018 and September 2019

The amount of nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay can change dramatically from year to year and is influenced by land use, land management and river flow. Generally, when the watershed receives more rain and river flows increase, the water carries more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution than usual, increasing loads received by the Bay. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that between October 2018 and September 2019, river flow to the Bay measured an above-average 84.5 billion gallons per day, the highest recorded amount since 2011. According to our most recent water quality monitoring data, about 491 million pounds of nitrogen reached the Bay between October 2018 and September 2019: a 16% increase from the previous year. This is 40% higher than the long-term average annual load.

Phosphorus Pollution

Graphic indicating that 34.8 million pounds of phosphorus were delivered to the Chesapeake Bay between October 2018 and September 2019

The amount of phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay can change dramatically from year to year and is influenced by land use, land management and river flow. Generally, when the watershed receives more rain and river flows increase, the water carries more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution than usual, increasing loads received by the Bay. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that between October 2018 and September 2019, river flow to the Bay measured an above-average 84.5 billion gallons per day, the highest recorded amount since 2011. According to our most recent water quality monitoring data, about 34.8 million pounds of phosphorus reached the Bay between October 2018 and September 2019: a 17% decrease from the previous year. This is 52% higher than the 1985-2019 long-term average.

What you can do

To lower nutrient pollution in the Bay watershed, consider reducing the amount of pollution that can run off your property: install a green roof, rain garden or rain barrel to capture and absorb rainfall; use porous surfaces like gravel or pavers in place of asphalt or concrete; and redirect home downspouts onto grass or gravel rather than paved driveways or sidewalks. If you have a lawn to take care of, use fertilizers properly: do not use more than needed, and do not apply to dormant lawns or frozen ground. You can also reduce air pollution by walking, biking or taking public transportation, or using electric or manual lawn mowers and yard tools instead of gas-powered machines.

Partnership goals

The Chesapeake Bay Program is committed to reducing nutrient pollution through its 2025 Watershed Implementation Plans. As of 2020, practices put in place to reduce pollution are estimated to have achieved 45% of the nitrogen reductions and 65% of the phosphorus reduction needed to attain applicable water quality standards by 2025.

Track our work at ChesapeakeProgress.com