Our Bay: Attacking the bay's nitrogen problem

New goals aim to reduce pollution

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, 05/23/09

Pamela Wood - The Capital
Gov. Martin O'Malley rows Georgetown East Elementary School students Jennare Johnson and Caleb Little around the Severn River at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville.

The restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, in many ways, all comes down to a single number: 175 million.

Photo courtesy of Bob Gilbert Gov. Martin O’Malley joins other government leaders at Mount Vernon earlier this month in announcing efforts to cut more nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that reaches the Chesapeake Bay by 2011. Even if those goals are met, however, there is still a long way to go to get nitrogen down to the ultimate goal of 175 million pounds per year. Currently, nitrogen pollution is nearly 260 million pounds per year.

That's how many pounds of nitrogen pollution can flow into the Chesapeake Bay and not screw up the ecosystem too badly.

The bay cleanup effort has scores of goals for cutting phosphorus and sediment pollution and restoring grasses, fish and oysters. But nitrogen is front and center.

If nitrogen pollution is slashed, experts said, the bay has a shot of returning to a healthy, productive estuary.

"Nitrogen and phosphorus are the main pollutants that are affecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay and our local rivers and streams," said Beth McGee, a scientist with the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Nitrogen is the key driver of the process that leads to the bay's infamous, oxygen-deprived "dead zones," where fish, crabs and oysters can't survive.

Just as nitrogen-rich fertilizer nourishes lawns and plants on land, nitrogen also spurs the growth of plants in the water - in this case, algae.

The algae block light from reaching vital underwater grasses and they suck life-sustaining oxygen from the water.

Nitrogen is found in the environment naturally, but human activities send it running into streams, rivers and the bay in high amounts. Nitrogen comes from farms, suburban and urban stormwater runoff, sewage plants, septic systems and air pollution from vehicles and power plants.

The current rate of nitrogen pollution is, on average, 259.4 million pounds annually, according to computer models. That's all the nitrogen that flows from the entire 64,000-square-mile watershed that drains to the bay.

Maryland has 14.4 percent of the watershed and contributes 21.1 percent of the nitrogen that reaches the bay - almost 55 million pounds per year, experts said.

Pennsylvania contributes the most of all bay states, sending 39.6 percent of the bay's nitrogen pollution running down the Susquehanna River. But Pennsylvania's share of the watershed land area is 35.2 percent.

Virginia is third, contributing 27.2 percent of nitrogen pollution.

The other bay watershed states - West Virginia, New York, Delaware and the District of Columbia - contribute just a few percent each.

Earlier this month, governors from the bay watershed states agreed to speed up their nitrogen and phosphorus pollution reductions - though the promises still keep the bay way behind previous goals for bay restoration.

The new promises should cut annual nitrogen pollution from 259.4 million pounds down to 243.6 million pounds by 2011.

Maryland's goal is to cut nitrogen from 54.78 million pounds per year down to 51.03 million pounds.

State officials said they plan to meet the goals largely through existing programs, such as sewage plant and septic system upgrades paid for through the "flush fee."

They'll also rely on federal Farm Bill money to help farmers with environmentally friendly practices.

Air-pollution reductions from power plants due to the state's Healthy Air Act also will help.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as the leading watchdog group, is glad to see short-term goals, rather than the repeated long-term promises that have gone unfulfilled.

"The good news from the milestones is that for the first time, the signatories from the jurisdictions have set for themselves short-term, measurable goals that we can hold them accountable for achieving," McGee said.

By way of comparison, the last round of goals were set in 2000, back when Parris Glendening was Maryland's governor. At that time, current Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was just settling into his first term as mayor of Baltimore.

"One of the problems in the past is that they set long-term goals and those that signed the agreements won't be around when it's time to pay the piper," McGee said.

That said, bay foundation officials said they were hoping for bigger goals, as there's still a long way to go to reach that magic nitrogen number of 175 million pounds.

"We were hoping for more of a stretch in the pollution reductions," McGee said.

(Revised May 2009)