Every summer, Chesapeake Bay watershed residents become acutely aware of air pollution. As the mercury rises and air quality worsens, newspapers and television and radio stations broadcast daily warnings of “code red” days and sometimes even more unhealthy “code purple” days. We are urged to stay indoors in the air conditioning, to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and to not mow our lawns.
Every summer, the Bay experiences its own “code red” conditions, as oxygen levels creep to dangerously low levels because of water pollution. But there isn’t any warning system that alerts the Bay’s creatures to these potential deadly conditions. The “dead zone” in the Chesapeake has been growing for four decades, and monitoring data have yet to show any appreciable change as a result of our collective efforts to save the Bay.
Are the tens of thousands of people who travel over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge outside of Annapolis, or who cross the York River on Route 17, in July and August aware that virtually all water 30 feet or deeper is oxygen-starved and practically devoid of life? The Bay’s surface can look so inviting, as sunlight glistens on the water. Yet, below the surface, conditions are so harsh that oysters, clams, crabs and fish have little chance of survival.
With one of the wettest springs in memory, the potential for several significant fish kills and crab jubilees—where the water becomes so anoxic that crabs literally swim onto shore—is very real. And if air and water temperatures rise as they have in previous summers, it could create the worst dead zone in the Bay we’ve ever seen.
We’ve known for some time that reducing nitrogen pollution from all sources in the watershed remains our primary goal. If successful, we can rid the Bay of these anoxic zones and restore water clean enough to support healthy living resources like crabs, oysters, and underwater grasses.
Over the last 20 years, the Bay-saving community has achieved impressive success: historic commitments to reduce nutrient pollution by a minimum of 40 percent; a ban on phosphates in detergents; a resurgence of the Bay’s rockfish population; and a new, far-reaching Bay agreement pledging to restore water quality by 2010.
These are all laudable achievements, but the hard truth is that key water quality parameters have shown virtually no change since the Chesapeake Bay Program was launched in 1983. In fact, much of the data show a worsening of conditions for water clarity, algae, and dissolved oxygen.
We may have succeeded in stopping the decline of the Bay—no small feat given the growing population of the region, but our goal is to restore the Bay, not simply to hold the line.
The Bay’s dead zone has become a sad fact of life to commercial and recreational fishermen. Perhaps many other people are unaware of this unfortunate condition that undermines efforts to restore the Bay. If more people knew that these lifeless areas existed, we might have more success in reducing the pollution that causes these events every year.