The Chesapeake Bay has the longest coastline in the eastern United States -- nearly 19,000 kilometers long, stretching through and bordering six states. Thousands of rivers and streams feed its waters, and more than 16 million people share its bounty. The bay's economic and environmental impact is huge. But it is in trouble, and many fear its demise. Producer Zulima Palacio reports on one of the most challenging environmental recovery programs in the country. VOA's Jim Bertel narrates the story.
The Chesapeake Bay's pleasures are obvious, the desire to get close to it strong. That is part of the problem. With millions of people living close by, the Chesapeake is under environmental siege.
Decades of human development have had a harsh effect on the watershed, filling it with an overabundance of agricultural nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorous – and industrial waste.
Bill Matuszeski has spent the last 40 years trying to offset the environment degradation. He now works for the privately funded Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. "In the case of the Chesapeake Bay, the sources of the oversupply of nutrients are overwhelming from agriculture. Sixty percent of it comes from agriculture."
Benjamin Grunbles of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees. "We think the primary challenge, the biggest challenge for the Chesapeake Bay, is nutrients. Nutrients are a good thing but when they are in excessive amounts they can trigger algae growth, algae blooms which then deprive the water of oxygen as it decomposes."
Much of that excess of nutrients comes from natural and artificial fertilizers. But the overdose of nutrients also comes from antiquated, sewage treatment plants in urban areas, and leaky septic tanks in rural and suburban communities. Matuszeski explains that, until recently, waste treatment plants took out the toxins and the bacteria, but not the nitrogen and phosphorus, because they were not considered harmful to human health. But they are for the watershed.
"We still have in America and around the world, hundreds of cities that have these combined sewage systems that go back 100-120 years,” says Matuszeski. “In Washington D.C., there are over 100 outlets that open up in a big storm and send raw sewage into the Anacostia River, where it does not go out to sea, where it ends up being caught up by the tide and moved around."
The U.S. Navy Yard, located in Washington D.C., dates to 1799. It once was an industrial facility to build ships, torpedoes and munitions. Over a period of 150 years the Navy discharged toxic materials into the bottom of the Anacostia River, one of many tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
Bill Matuszeski says, "Meanwhile we have a situation in the river here, where the fish absorb the toxins and develop tumors and other conditions so that people are not able to eat the fish out of the Anacostia River. This facility is no longer operating as an industrial facility, so we're dealing with what people call legacy sediments."
The Chesapeake Bay has long been known for its high production of oysters, crab and fish, and they support a multi-million fishing industry. But environmental groups say that pollution and years of over fishing are taking a toll. Anxious watermen consider themselves lucky to pull in a full catch.
"In a good year it's a body of water that produces half of the blue crab in the U.S.,” Matuszeski tells us. “It is 90 percent of the spawning area for the striped bass, a very important fish population."
Recent federal and private studies estimate that cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay will cost $28 billion, but plans to complete the restoration by 2010 are not likely to be met.
Still, Benjamin Grunble of the Environmental Protection Agency expresses optimism for the bay's future, even as he warns of the degrading effects of the region's fast growing population.
"The bay is definitely on the right track and we are making progress. But the reason we are not comfortable with the pace of progress so far is the reality that every year 150,000 new residents move into that large watershed. That means more development, that means more pavements and more cars," says Grunble.
Matuszeski says what is happening to the Chesapeake Bay can be seen in coastal areas around the world. But he hopes that a new awareness of the bay's fragility, eco-friendly legislation and new technology can help save it.