Bay's health among worst : Nutrient pollution problem in 2/3 of nation's estuaries

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer

The Chesapeake Bay is the nation's largest estuary. It's also one of the most loved, most studied and most funded.

And according to a new national report, it's also one of the nation's worst when it comes to dead zone-causing pollution.

"Bottom line: It's a disgrace the Chesapeake watershed, right here in the nation's capital, is listed among the worst polluted systems in the country," said Beth Lefebvre, a spokesman for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Report after report highlights the dire situation of the bay and its rivers."

What's different about this latest report - the National Estuarine Eutrophication Assessment - is that it puts the problem in a national perspective.

While the report has a mouthful of a name, it had a simple goal: figure out how much human nutrient pollution is harming the nation's bays, sounds and gulfs.

Nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen come from a variety of sources: fertilizer runoff from farms, air pollution falling into the water, dirty urban and suburban stormwater runoff, failing septic systems, outdated sewage plants.

When nutrients build up in the water, they fuel algae blooms. The algae block light from reaching underwater grasses and suck oxygen from the water - harming fish, crabs an oysters.

That process, called eutrophication, is an acute problem in estuaries, where freshwater rivers flow into saltwater.

"The ecological health of our nation's coastal waters is threatened by nutrient pollution. They are in need of protective action," said Dr. Suzanne Bricker, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who was the report's lead author.

In two-thirds of the 99 estuaries that were evaluated - including the Chesapeake Bay - nutrient pollution is considered "moderate to high," she said.

Within the Chesapeake, the report looked at nine areas. Five - including the bay's main stem - had high levels of nutrient pollution problems. The other four had moderately high levels of nutrient pollutions.

Rich Batiuk of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, said the bay isn't "turning the corner" that's needed.

He said nutrient pollution is "what's causing the Chesapeake not to be the bay system we want it to be," with healthy fish, crabs and shellfish and clean water to swim in.

As for the future, the report predicts one-third of the bay's areas will improve, one-third will stay the same and one-third will worsen.

And the mid-Atlantic region as a whole - defined in the report as south of Cape Cod to the Virginia-North Carolina state line - has the greatest number of estuaries with moderate or high levels of nutrient pollution.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Dr. Bricker and other federal officials talked about what's being done - and what needs to be done - to fix the problems.

Coordination between different levels of government, assistance for farmers, stricter discharge permits and effective enforcement of clean air and clean water laws are all needed, they said.

Those steps are particularly important as coastal cities and towns are only expected to grow.

Right now, efforts are only "holding the line" on nutrient pollution, Dr. Bricker said.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., who is the head of NOAA and also holds a doctoral degree in applied math, said even individual homeowners can be part of the solution - for example, by skipping nutrient-rich lawn fertilizer.

"This is not something that's solely the purview of the federal government," he said. "If we're going to solve this problem, it's going to be solved by every American."

Published August 01, 2007, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.


(Revised August 2007)