Two news stories appeared the same day in a recent Washington Post reporting actions being taken on water bodies in far distant areas. Both were interesting to me, particularly because they reinforce the direction, the breadth and intensity of the commitment that has been made to restore the Chesapeake. This month, some observations on the Rhine, saving the Grand Canyon for May.
In the Rhine, after a concentrated 10-year effort by Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Germany and The Netherlands, the salmon and the trout are returning. This is all the more remarkable given that as late as the 1980s there was a 160-mile stretch that was virtually devoid of any life. One chemical spill in 1986, soon after the Chernobyl disaster, caused a drinking water alert for 50 million people.
The situation in the Rhine has a number of important differences from the Bay -- the Rhine was far more polluted than the Chesapeake has ever been, and the pollution problem was heavily related to toxics rather than the nutrient oversupply that is our main problem. At the same time, the Rhine flows far more rapidly than the Bay -- 3-4 miles per hour compared with an average of six months for a molecule of water to find its way from the mouth of the Susquehanna to Norfolk -- so the speed of recovery from abuse is likely to be much faster.
Despite these differences, there are an amazing number of parallels between the two cleanup efforts. Both are dealing with large, highly populated drainage areas -- 87,000 square miles in the Rhine and 64,000 for the Bay. Both have cooperative multijurisdictional agreements and governing boards to oversee the cleanup. After a decade of effort, both are showing signs of recovery, with the Bay's equivalent of the salmon and trout being the rockfish and the submerged grasses. In fact, while only the first of the Rhine species are being seen, we have declared the rockfish recovered and doubled the acreage of grasses, although we started with a far less polluted system. Both systems have seen more than 50 percent reductions of toxic loadings from industry in the basin.
Even more remarkably, the words used to describe overall progress to date in the Rhine and the Chesapeake are virtually the same. In the latest "State of the Bay Report," we conclude that the patient is out of intensive care and has begun the recovery process. The Chief of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine says that river is "out of the emergency ward but not yet out of the hospital." One wonders if they were reading our reports.
To date, much of the progress made in the Rhine is due to investments of the private sector; the worst toxic flows were originating from a large number of chemical plants on the upper Rhine, especially in Germany and Switzerland.
In contrast, most of the point sources of nutrients to our watershed emanate from sewage treatment plants. Phosphorous reductions, which primarily benefit the freshwater portions of our rivers, were cheap and easy to achieve because of technology fixes and the ability to ban phosphorous in detergents. But removing nitrogen, the other nutrient and the one that most affects the Bay and the tidal rivers, takes public investment in treatment plant upgrades. While Maryland has made considerable progress in achieving this, the other jurisdictions have yet to make the necessary commitments of resources.
Where it seems we have a head start on the Rhine is our effort to reduce nutrients from agriculture. For the Rhine, as its cleanup turns from toxic reduction to the control of nutrients, this is just beginning. Yet one third of the nutrient loadings to the North Sea come from the Rhine. So just as the Potomac and the Susquehanna do their part to help the Bay's nutrient oversupply problem, the Rhine is now being called upon to contribute to the North Sea cleanup.
This means the parallels between the Rhine and the Chesapeake effort will become even stronger. We are both moving upstream. Governments in Europe are undertaking efforts to open up blockages on Rhine tributaries to encourage the return of anadromous fish species, much as we are doing for shad and herring throughout our watershed. The effort to deal with nutrients will involve more work in each of the major river systems to develop the mix of actions to achieve the goals. Ultimately, both efforts can succeed only if the public remains committed and understands what it can do. This means everything from taking part in the cleanup in their towns to providing the political support to making sure the needed actions are taken by all levels of government.
Maybe we should send a copy of our Local Government Directive over there. And maybe they could send back information on how they got folks to clean up those point sources.