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25-Year Cleanup Effort Fails to Restore America's Largest Estuary

  • Rosanne Skirble

The nation's largest estuary is where the mighty Potomac and other great east coast rivers merge on their way to the Atlantic Ocean

The nation's largest estuary is where the mighty Potomac and other great east coast rivers merge on their way to the Atlantic Ocean

Industrial growth, a population boom and fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns are to blame for continued pollution of Chesapeake Bay; President Obama has called for stricter enforcement

The Chesapeake Bay is a national, natural American treasure. It was formed 15,000 years ago when an immense glacier melted and flooded an ancient river valley. Today, the estuary marks where the Potomac and 150 other rivers, streams and creeks merge on their way to the Atlantic Ocean. The sprawling 166,000 square-kilometer watershed stretches through six states and the nation's capital, nourishing a multitude of land and marine species. It's also the source of fresh drinking water, food and recreation for 17 million people.

Pollution is a longstanding problem

Pollution has long been a problem. Since the early 1980s, a regional partnership under the federally-funded Chesapeake Bay Program has been charged with cleanup. While some progress has been made, goals have been routinely missed. Jeffrey Lape, program director, says that failure was underscored in the 2009 Chesapeake Bay Program annual report that looked at such indicators as water quality, wildlife habitat and fish population. "We have rolled them up into a single index, which on a scale of 100, using 100 as a restored Bay; the Bay health is about a scale of 38," Lape says.

Industry and agriculture are leading Bay polluters

This did not happen overnight. Industrial growth, a population boom and fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns are to blame. Beth McGee, a water quality expert with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says the nutrient overload from nitrogen and phosphorus promotes algae blooms that suck life from Bay waters. "When the algae die they settle to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and some of the deeper rivers and when they are decomposed, oxygen is used up. And like us, the animals that live in the Bay - the fish, crabs and oysters - need oxygen to survive," McGee says. She adds that the result is, "a dead zone in the summertime when a huge amount of the Bay is off limits to aquatic life."

Blue point crabs, once plentiful, are nearly gone

Chesapeake Bay waterman John Freeman from Hampton, Virginia, has seen a dramatic decline in blue crabs compared to when he started crabbing 66 years ago. Today half of the 10,000 watermen are part timers.

Chesapeake Bay waterman John Freeman from Hampton, Virginia, has seen a dramatic decline in blue crabs compared to when he started crabbing 66 years ago. Today half of the 10,000 watermen are part timers.

John Freeman, 80, has watched these changes over a lifetime. A waterman by trade, he's trapped crabs near his home in Newport News, Virginia, for 66 years, just like his father before him. "Right now it's awful," he says from the cabin of his boat. "We're not making any money. Just surviving," he adds. Blue crabs, native to these waters, have declined by 70 percent over the last 15 years. Despite new restrictions on the fishery, crabs have not rebounded and watermen are turning to other jobs. Freeman says he raised six children as a crabber, a career it's likely his 22 year old grandson Evan won't follow.

Pollution keeps children on dry land

Charlie, Simon and Emily Ernst enjoy the beach at the end of their block in Annapolis, Maryland, yet often can't swim there because of polluted water.

Charlie, Simon and Emily Ernst enjoy the beach at the end of their block in Annapolis, Maryland, yet often can't swim there because of polluted water.

Elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, near the Maryland state capital in Annapolis, Howard Ernst, a U.S. Naval Academy political scientist, walks out on the pier at Chase Creek, a tributary of the Severn River. He lives just up the street and doesn't allow his young children to play much in the water because of the pollution. "You can fish, but you'd have to follow state fish advisories for mercury and there are plenty of those. You can crab there, but the primary concern is swimming in the water after rain events. For the entire Severn River the County has a warning that after a one inch [2.5cm] rain event, they advise not going in any of these waters for 48 hours," he says.

In his new book Fight for the Bay, Ernst writes that failed policies have allowed, "pollution to go on unabated in a way that the Bay can't handle, whether it's agriculture, whether it's steel mills, whether it's air pollution. It's in their economic best interests to dispose of their waste in public spaces like the Bay."

White House orders new clean up for Chesapeake

Earlier this year President Barack Obama issued an executive order to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay. Ernst says a strong federal initiative could be a game-changer. "If the administration gets serious about agricultural regulations, finds funding for storm water upgrades, for sewage upgrades and addresses air pollution, which also pollutes the Chesapeake Bay, then we will be in a different situation," Ernst says.

EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson announces a presidential order to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay, creating "a tougher era in federal leadership."

EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson announces a presidential order to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay, creating "a tougher era in federal leadership."


Lisa P. Jackson, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator calls the effort, "a new era in federal leadership." She says a preliminary report in response to the President's Executive Order outlines a tougher stand against Bay polluters. "We do understand that if we are going to prove that we are serious about the Bay, we absolutely must step up our oversight and if necessary our enforcement of the regulations that are there to protect the Bay, to protect human health and to protect the extraordinary ecosystem," Jackson says.

A strategy for Bay cleanup is expected to be finalized by May 2010.

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