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Dumping on the Chesapeake Bay

May 7, 2008

by Jack Lynch

As Ronald Reagan famously said, “There you go again!”

In a recent article in The Tentacle, Improving the Chesapeake, Part 1 and continued in Part 2, Farrell Keough, an Urbana resident said to be an aspiring Frederick County Board of Commissioners candidate, proves his own adage that “I wasn’t born stupid, I had to study.”

Mr. Keough can claim an Environmental Science degree and years of involvement with water quality in North Carolina, but his viewpoints are formed more by a kneejerk plebeian adherence to conservative, less government, property rights agendas than science and reality.

While it may be exciting to call the Bay cleanup a child of a ‘crisis’ – it is a crisis that has slowly grown over generations and increased primarily due to the population increases of the region – it is a human and land use growth accelerated crisis.  Key notes from a recent Bay Journal analysis of the Bay’s restoration efforts:

  • just 12 percent of the Bay and the tidal portions of its tributaries met dissolved oxygen and water clarity goals
  • most habitats remain below goals or are in decline, and target fish species-except striped bass-are in poor condition
  • 318 million pounds of nitrogen reached the Chesapeake in 2007 - almost double the 175 million pound annual goal
  • phosphorus. In 2007, about 15 million pounds entered the Bay. That's significantly less than the 27 million pounds that entered the Bay in the mid-1980s, but still more than the 12.8 million pound goal
  • agriculture had achieved 48 percent of its nitrogen and 51 percent of its phosphorus goals, while wastewater treatment plants had achieved 69 percent of their nitrogen and 87 percent of their phosphorus goals
  • watershed population has grown from 13.5 million to 16.7 million people. Development has increased at an even faster pace: From 1990-2000, the amount of impervious cover-roads, parking lots and rooftops-increased at a rate five times faster than population growth
  • 750,000 acres of forest land, which yields less nutrient and sediment runoff than any other land use, has been lost in the Bay watershed since the mid-1980s.
  • 65,000 acres of underwater grasses in 2007, or 35 percent of the 185,000 acre restoration goal
  • 43 percent of the bottom areas of the Bay supported healthy communities of benthic organisms such as worms and clams
  • 55 percent of the Bay's phytoplankton communities were considered healthy.
  • As of 2005, the Bay had an estimated 283,946 acres of tidal wetlands, a decline of 2,600 acres from a decade earlier.
  • Dissolved Oxygen: Species living in various parts of the Bay need different amounts of dissolved oxygen to survive; worms living in bottom sediment need small amounts of oxygen, while striped bass living near the surface need much higher concentrations. Last summer, only 12 percent of the Bay and its tidal tributaries contained enough oxygen to support species that should be found in different habitats.
  • Chlorophyll a: This is a measure of algae near the surface of the Bay. Some algae is important to fuel the Bay's food web, but excess concentrations block sunlight to underwater grasses, contribute to low dissolved oxygen concentrations, and can lead to blooms of harmful algae species. In 2007, 26 percent of the Bay met cleanup goals.
  • Chemical Contaminants: Thirty-three percent of the Bay's waters are free of impairments caused by toxic pollutants in 2007, such as excessive concentrations in sediments or high enough concentrations in fish tissue to lead to consumption advisories.

Second, Keough claims that billions have been spent in cleanup, without any facts, and while it will indeed cost billions to solve these issues, it is unclear that any such amounts have actually been forthcoming. 

Recently, regional legislators called for a massive funding of clean programs for the Chesapeake Bay, a panel called for draconian reductions on concentrated animal feedlot operations because of water degradations, the farm Bill includes hefty funding targeted towards Bay efforts, Maryland approved $25 Million in bay cleanup funding, and even Congressional Republicans called for a reduction in the focus on crops grown for biofuels because of negative impacts.

Third, he would have us believe that this is not really a problem, describing the Chesapeake as a ‘bathtub full of water’ – it is not, it is a living ecosystem, its waters flow in and out and it ‘breathes’ and its heart ‘beats’.  It is so much more complex, and even he knows this is true, note the environmental degree…

In his concept of the status of the Bay and its impacts, there is only a simplistic notion of how sediments and nutrients reach our waters, he ignores the historical deficiencies creating much of the problem, first, the forests that once covered most of our land mass are mostly gone except for the high elevations moving west in Maryland, and even these are but shadows of the first growth forests most of us have never even glimpsed anywhere. 

Second, he ignores the long deficiencies of lost bay grasses which once covered a majority of its bottom area, and the minute percentage of the bay covered in water cleansing oyster beds, which once filtered the bay every twenty-four hours and keep its waters clear of many sediments and nutrient overloads.

What is the great point of this tirade of mock emotion over reality and science?  It is to call into question the benefits of restoring forested buffers along our waterways, as Frederick County is currently considering by adopting a stream setback ordinance.

Again, mistakenly, he goes on to assume that a setback is bad for landowners, and that a setback is a one size fits all solution – he could not be more wrong.  Setbacks established and proposed are contingent on a variety of factors that determine their size and impacts – steep slopes, soil types, and accurately GIS mapped floodplains and wetlands.  The science of reporting the real benefits of leaving these buffers in forest and grassland strips is long and demonstrated fully.  To suggest otherwise is simply wrong.

Sadly he trades his credibility for the mantra of the Farm Bureau, a special interest, advocacy group, who while representing the sometimes good stewards of the land and water, also still contribute over 40% of Bay pollutants from their land use.  To suggest otherwise is a shill.

Sticking our heads in ideological sand while real problems exist and impact our lives is not helpful to any community, even as the proponents claim to be addressing the common man’s positions –

For a variety of scientific reports on the value of stream buffers in water quality improvements and protection, here’s a quick sourcing from online:

  • Preserving riparian corridor functions is unequivocally recognized as one of the most effective means to manage excess nutrient losses from intensively used watersheds.  Source: Kuusemets, V. and U. Mander, Ecotechnological measures to control nutrient losses from catchments.  Water Science and Technology, 1999. 40(10): p. 195-202.
  • Vegetated streambanks are up to 20,000 times more resistant to erosion than bare streambanks.  Source:  OEPA, The Benefits of Stream and Riparian Habitat Protection in Ohio. Appendix to Volume I in Ohio Water Resources Inventory, OEPA, Division of Surface Water, Columbus, Ohio. 1994.
  • Computer modeling of riparian systems shows that a 150 foot riparian setback on a 3% slope reduced sediment transport by 90%.  Source:  Wong, S.L. and R.H. McCuen, The design of vegetative buffer strips for run-off and sediment control., in Technical Paper, funded by the Maryland Coastal Zone Management Program, University of Maryland. College Park, MD. 1982.
  • Adjacent forest vegetation and litter lowered stream flood elevations from 32 feet to 17 feet for a 100-year flood.  Source:  Castelle, A.J., A.W. Johnson, and C. Conolly, Wetland and Stream Buffer Size Requirements - a Review. Journal of Environmental Quality, 1994. 23(5): p. 878-882.
  • An 82 foot setback necessary to remove 80% of sediments; a 197 foot setback necessary to remove 80% of suspended solids and nitrogen; and a 279 foot setback necessary to remove 80% of phosphorus.  Source:  Desbonnet, A., et al., Vegetated Setbacks in the Coastal Zone. ISBN 0-938 412-37-x. Coastal Resource Center, Rhode Island Coastal Sea Grant, University of Rhode Island. Providence, Rhode Island. 1994.
  • A minimum core habitat for amphibians and reptiles extends between 466 and 948 feet from the edge of riparian systems.Source:  Semlitsch, R.D. and J.R. Bodie, Biological criteria for buffer zones around wetlands and riparian habitats for amphibians and reptiles. Conservation Biology, 2003. 17(5): p. 1219-1228.
  • Seasonally migratory birds are 10 to 14 times more abundant in riparian habitat.  Source:  OEPA, The Benefits of Stream and Riparian Habitat Protection in Ohio. Appendix to Volume I in Ohio Water Resources Inventory, OEPA, Division of Surface Water, Columbus, Ohio. 1994.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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