Restoring the Tears of the Bay
2017, High School, Prose
A white perch propels itself through the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay, struggling to take a breath. It recalls the vastness of the ocean that brimmed with life and the rainbow colors that overlaid the surface, but is now unable to observe the beauty of the Bay. Clusters of lifeless corpses blanket the sea and drift in a broth of toxins. The perch takes its last breath before choking from the lack of oxygen. The waters weep. Dark tears drip. This is a pervasive phenomenon known as dead zones (“Dead Zones”).
Dead zones are hypoxic areas in marine environments where oxygen concentrations are too low to sustain plants and animal lives. They emerge from excessive nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorous, in the ocean, which fuel the growth of algae—a process known as eutrophication (Scheer and Moss). Algae blooms block sunlight from reaching underwater plants and deplete oxygen from the waters when decomposed. Consequently, low oxygen levels suffocate and stress fish, causing disease and the growth of parasites. During harmful blooms, fish are visibly sick, often covered in patches of white fungus and lesions. Some algae species attack the liver and nervous systems of aquatic animals and ultimately cause deaths (“Nitrogen & Phosphorus”). In addition, toxins engendered by algae blooms are consumed by small fish and travel through the food chain, eventually accumulating in larger predators (“Nutrient Pollution”). Furthermore, eutrophication increases the pH to unusually high levels, and the raised pH kills animals that are powerless to adapt to extreme conditions (Chislock et al). Hardly a creature can survive.
What causes dead zones? Although dead zones can form naturally, human activities perpetuate the development of dead zones and are the main source of nitrogen and phosphorous washed into our oceans (Scheer and Moss). Agricultural runoff is the greatest source of pollution to the Bay, contributing approximately 40 percent of the nitrogen and 50 percent of the phosphorous. Sewage treatment plants are also responsible for a large percentage of the nitrogen; together, agriculture and sewage systems account for the majority of nutrient inputs to the Bay. In addition, anthropogenic runoff from urban and suburban stormwater plays a considerable role in nutrient overabundance and is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Bay region (“Nitrogen & Phosphorus”). Rainwater flows down roads and parking lots, collecting various substances, including fertilizers, pet waste, oil, and automotive fluids, which eventually spill into streams and rivers. As people flood to cities and lands develop, natural buffers get replaced by impervious surfaces that are unable to absorb water. Thus, less water is filtered into the ground and more contaminated runoff is channeled into streams, ultimately resulting in a proliferation of dead zones (“Polluted Runoff”).
The devastation from dead zones to our planet is catastrophic. Dead zones plague over 530 marine environments, covering over 95,000 square miles worldwide (Levitt). Valuable habitats of wildlife species that serve as nurseries and food supplies are damaged by poor water quality. The effects of nutrient pollution are glaring manifestations of our ravaged waters. “There were dead fish on the boat ramp eight inches thick. It’s just awful,” recounted Judy Bowie, a resident of Mattox Creek, Virginia. One summer in Mattox Creek, 296,000 fish suffocated from oxygen deprivation. This creek is not alone. The Chesapeake Bay is dotted with dead zones and areas experiencing a substantial decline of aquatic organisms (“Dead Zones”).
The plethora of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Chesapeake Bay not only causes ecological disturbances, but also risks the health of a massive human population. The Bay stretches from New York to Virginia and is the largest estuary in the United States, supporting over 17 million residents. Stimulated by nutrient overload, a type of bacteria called Vibrio is linked to intestinal illnesses and life-threatening skin and blood infections in this large area. “My leg got so hot, it started to blister and turn black,” recounted Mark Allen from Virginia, who almost lost his leg from a Vibrio infection. We drown in our own sea of pollution. Approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population drinks from private wells, while nitrates found in dead zones contaminate drinking water from wells, potentially leading to nonfunctional kidneys, hemorrhaging of the spleen, and cancer (Pelton). Nitrates in water especially affect infants by increasing their susceptibility to respiratory problems and bluish skin discoloration (“Nutrient Pollution”). Our rancorous waters eventually unleash revenge on us for exploiting its purity.
With much of our economy dependent on coastal seas, nutrient over-enrichment is devastating to industries and jobs. “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans,” asserted Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day. “These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.” Unfortunately, pollution is taking a toll on the water quality and lessening economic activity in the Bay region. In the last 30 years, the fishing and shellfish industry in the Chesapeake Bay has suffered from a $4 billion loss (“The Economic Importance”). Recreation industries also are imperiled by contaminated waters. For instance, the hundreds of beach closures in the Bay area each year potentially hurt local businesses by hundreds of thousands of dollars (“The Economic Argument”). Furthermore, nutrient-polluted drinking water precipitates higher treatment expenses and cleanup costs of up to billions of dollars. Additionally, the value of houses and businesses is lowered by the vile odor and repulsive sight of surrounding algal blooms (“Nutrient Pollution”). No one enjoys the smell of rotten eggs. Heightened commitment to preserve water quality is necessary for a strong economy, before nutrient pollution aggravates the situation.
The reality we have created is not one to avert, but one to confront. In recent years, the Chesapeake Bay has made remarkable progress, but its C- health rating evidently calls for improvement. The job is not done. Restoration of the Bay is urgent, as excessive nutrients risk the health of a national treasure (“2016 State”). Fortunately, the effects of dead zones can be reversed if nitrogen and phosphorous are eradicated from the waters (Scheer and Moss). Elimination of nutrient pollution from the Bay is an immense challenge, but the issue can be tackled by employing effective solutions and prioritizing nutrient management.
Runoff from agriculture is the chief culprit for nutrient inputs, and agricultural measures are the most cost-effective in lessening nutrient pollution in the Bay. Agricultural conservation practices can mitigate up to 66 percent of necessary nutrient reductions in the Bay, while such practices constitute only 13 percent of the total cost of the watershed’s restoration (“Agriculture”). Conservation practices, or best management practices (BMPs), are technologies and procedures to attenuate fertilizer usage, handle animal wastes, and preserve water quality on farms. They include installing buffers near streams, fencing off animals from waterways, educating farmers with nutrient management plans, and planting cover crops (“Best Management”). Properly implemented practices have proven to obtain positive outcomes. “We no longer have calves falling down in the stream at birth and dying. We no longer have old cows mired up to their bellies in the muck,” exclaimed farmer Coyner after fencing cows out of streams (Whitescarver). The federal government has supported BMPs through the Farm Bill, passed by Congress in 2014, which established three conservation programs that offer farms financial aid, installation of tools in critical areas, and protection of waterways that run through farms (“The Federal”).
However, progress from agricultural lands is still not optimal. The agriculture sector is not strictly regulated, with merely eight percent of state farms inspected by the Department of Agriculture annually in Maryland. Furthermore, many farms have not participated in conservation efforts because they are asked to implement BMPs on a voluntary basis. Much controversy also surrounds how effective conservation practices are to reducing pollution on farms. For example, only two-thirds of nutrient management plans are executed in Maryland, and farmers may not be implementing programs correctly (Kobell et al). New policies must intensify inspections on farms, verify that resources are being utilized, and confirm that efforts are adequate in improving water quality.
Aside from handling agricultural runoff, chemicals from sewage effluent need to be reduced with innovative technology, such as biological nutrient removal (BNR), enhanced nutrient removal (ENR), and centralize sludge processing. BNR relies on microorganisms under various conditions to remove nitrogen and phosphorous from wastewater, and ENR is an improvement upon BNR. Despite facing adversity, several major wastewater treatment plants in the Bay area have adopted ENR, a relatively new treatment (“Wastewater”). For example, a treatment plant in the Town of Easton was initially challenged with “putting everything together to keep the processes consistent in spite of varying lead and weather” when implementing ENR. Nevertheless, it overcame complications with a monitoring system, funding, engineers, and construction firms, and the payoff was worthwhile (Williams). Another approach developed by New York City to remove nitrogen involves centralized sludge processing and treatment; the plan reduced the City’s costs by 96 percent. This treatment can potentially be adopted in other metropolitan areas to minimize costs. Nutrient removal technologies for sewage treatment plants can cut down about 20 percent of necessary pollution, but funding remains an obstacle (Randall).
Because policies and funding are imperative to the preservation of the Chesapeake Bay, lawmakers must be involved in the process. Thus far, the government has taken some steps to combat nutrient over-enrichment in the Bay. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order calling on the federal government to protect and restore the Bay. Subsequently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, which set limits on nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment deposits into the Bay (“Chesapeake Bay TMDL”). Consequently, states in the watershed joined to design proposals to meet the nutrient limits by 2025 to form the Chesapeake Bay Water Blueprint (“What Is the Chesapeake”). Despite formulating these plans, government officials must play a more active role in the mission through adequate financial assistance and escalated supervision. For example, policymakers should impose specific requirements in the stormwater sector because state governments have failed to sufficiently monitor and set deadlines for pollution reduction from urban and suburban runoff (“CBF Review”). The time to accelerate efforts is now.
The law alone cannot solve all the problems in the Bay, especially stormwater runoff—the fastest growing source of pollution (“Nitrogen & Phosphorus”). With a handful of government officials and millions of residents, the strength of the community is greater than the strength of a few. We have the power to reach a goal as boundless as the ocean. Raising public awareness is the first wave to mount in restoring the wellness of our waters since many homeowners have not realized their often unconscious contribution to chemical runoff. Media outlets, including radio and television stations, should publicize the importance of clean water and motivate citizens to act. Hashtags can become viral sensations, so we should take advantage of social media through hashtag campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Because the future of our planet is in the hands of children, educating the next generation about pollution in their watershed is crucial to a salubrious ecosystem in the long run. Schools should integrate environmental degradation into the curriculum in order to increase students’ understanding of their impact and responsibility. Residents can be involved by informing coworkers, posting flyers around the neighborhood, and wearing advocacy shirts.
Awareness must then be translated into action from communities. Impermeable lands in residential areas do not absorb stormwater, so green infrastructure projects are necessary to filter pollutants and improve water quality. Trees can be planted near locations of high impact, such as roads, parking lots, and schools. Not only can deciduous trees soak up 40,000 gallons of water a year, but they also can beautify the landscape and provide necessities for animals (“Community Projects”). At Laurel Elementary School, gardens were constructed as a part of a stormwater management project. With the help of fourth and fifth graders, about 100 plants were introduced to the school grounds to capture pollutants in rainwater. We have something to learn from these students. “I like that I had the privilege to plant the plants and I like that I can help the community,” said Christopher, a fourth grader. “It’s important because animals need to stay alive and the world can stay a clean place” (Michaels). When planning new buildings or houses, designers and property owners should consider installing “green roofs” and pervious structures. Covered with plants, “green roofs” limit toxic chemical pollution and raise apartment rental rates by 16 percent due to their aesthetics. Another effective solution is installing rain barrels, or water storage vessels, which collect rain from buildings’ roofs and keep it for later use (“Community Projects”). These strategies are for any community, school, or group to prevent the flow of dangerous chemicals into our watershed.
What can individuals do to reduce their footprint? Actions as simple as cleaning up after a pet can help control stormwater pollution. People should wash their car at the car wash instead of doing so in their driveways (“Nutrient Pollution”). Homeowners can fill bare spots in their yard with native plants. Minimized use of lawn fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides will reduce environmental effects as they are a major source of toxic chemicals. Septic systems should be inspected, maintained, and pumped regularly because waste can leak and spill into nearby waterways. Residents can install a rain garden to capture rainwater from roofs, parking lots, and paved lands, hence removing pollutants from runoff. Hazardous household wastes, including oils, paint, cleaners, preservatives, and solvents must be properly disposed of, and not poured down the sink or storm drain (“12 Things”). These minor changes will preserve our waters. Each person has the power to make a positive difference on our oceans.
Dead zones are silent massacres. Multitudes of wildlife have suffocated, but their voices are unheard. We must be the voice for them in this new era of restoration. Everyone must take part in curbing polluted runoff for the sake of our environment, well-being, and economy. United we surge, but divided we ooze. Scientists, policymakers, neighborhoods, and citizens must cooperate. Only then can we envision a thriving ecosystem with fish, crabs, and oysters bathing at the mouth of every creek. Perhaps one day, we will live to experience the magnificence of nature, where sturgeons, rockfish, shads, shrimp, and geese are in great abundance; hills, plains, and valleys are overgrown with vegetation; and a restored Bay trickles twinkling tears.
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When I came across this Contest, I felt the need to express my ideas about ocean pollution, especially the nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, since I am a Northern Virginia resident who is greatly affected by the health of the Bay. Through researching, I became even more aware of the horrific truths of ocean pollution. Now, I am incredibly motivated to fight for this cause and I hope that I have inspired people to take action. It will be a long journey, but it will be a worthwhile one.