The Chesapeake Bay: An imperiled waterway on the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast



The 64,000 square mile Chesapeake Bay watershed drains all of the water that falls from the sky and springs from the earth and rolls downhill along streams, creeks, and rivers and flow through parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The complexities of soil and air add to the web of interdependencies that make up the ecological system.

Humans play an important role in its health. This is most alarming to our species when a hard rain is falling on the Chesapeake Bay as it did this October after a long, hot summer when drought conditions prevailed in the Eastern U.S. Whenever this happens, health departments across the region warn people to avoid all contact with the water for two days. They do this because the heavy rain flushes all kinds of pollution off yards, streets, parking lots, and farm fields, driving up bacterial levels so high it might be unsafe to swim, wade, or kayak.

When I read about this on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website, I was concerned. I was planning to kayak this weekend. Like most people, when these warnings are issued by health departments, I don’t hear about them. I think it is a tragedy that we are warned not to touch our waters every time it rains. It is something we should be furious about. The 1972 U.S. Federal Clean Water Act has decreed that our waters are supposed to be “swimmable” and “fishable.” They are not.

A United Nations statistic purports that 2 million tons of human waste are released into waterways worldwide. In the developing world, 70% of industrial waste in dumped into the fresh water supply.

In the Chesapeake Bay, this type of pollution comes from the discharge pipes at factories or sewage plants. The amount of pollution from this source has declined significantly, but runoff from developed lands and other non-point sources, continues to grow.

Infections from swimming in the Bay are rare, but the fact that they happen and are disregarded by leaders in the heavily-populated Mid-Atlantic region of the United States is deplorable.

New pollution reduction plans have been submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the states in the watershed, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental advocates feel that the plans are seriously deficient. They simply do not do enough to control the pollution that comes with runoff.

About 100,000 streams and rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay, where 11,600 miles of shoreline guard its 15 trillion gallons of water. The Bay\’s average depth is 21 feet. More than 15 million people call the Chesapeake Bay watershed home. By 2020, the population is expected to climb to 18 million. In addition, about 3,600 other species make their home in and around the Bay. Of these, 265 species are fish and 29 species are waterfowl.

The Chesapeake Bay has been impacted by human activity, such as centuries of overharvesting of fish and shellfish. The activity has upset the system of checks and balances that once ensured a healthy place for all to live. When species were brought in to the Chesapeake Bay from other parts of the world to provide for the seafood industry, problems arose because the new species had no natural enemies to keep them in check. Disease resulted and oysters, in particular, have suffered steep declines from which they have not recovered.

Of key concern to scientists is the impact of nutrient pollution. This occurs when nitrogen and phosphorus from human and pet waste, farms, fertilizer, household chemicals, and more is pumped into the Bay from sewage treatment plants or washes off of fields, lawns, and pavement. The nutrients cause algae to grow just as they fertilizer crops and lawns. The abundant alga dies, of course, and sinks to the bottom of waterways where it uses oxygen in its decomposition process. When plants use most of the oxygen, there is little left for animals like the Chesapeake Bay’s signature Blue Crabs.

The oxygen-starved areas are called dead zones. Scientists have noted that dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and other coastal areas are growing and that this is an ecological time bomb.

Many people don’t see themselves as part of the natural ecosystem because they live inside building, don’t grow their own food, and are insulated from nature by heating and air conditioning systems. When asked to consider that they are intricately linked to the well being of living and non-living things, most realize that ecosystem health in places like the Chesapeake Bay is related to their own physical and social fitness.

The Chesapeake Bay is a resource that touches on the economic and emotional health of many in the Mid-Atlantic region of the Unites States. The Chesapeake Bay\’s troubles are not unfamiliar to those who live in coastal environments worldwide. The challenge presented by the current condition of the Bay and other waterways with which human health is interrelated cannot be ignored.