Tributary strategy or tragedy?

The newly released Tributary Strategy Plans are designed to reduce the input of “actionable” nutrients nitrate and phosphate, and sediment, of Virginia rivers to the Bay.

I eagerly logged on to see if this round of verbiage was likely to actually accomplish something. I should have known better. The goals are great, and have not substantively changed for several decades.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is correct in dubbing this effort a “Tributary Tragedy.” The bottom line to the strategy is, after all the words, “money, stupid.” Where do we get the money? In at least two instances, the answer has been obvious for decades—government funding is not necessary to make a big difference in the Bay:

1. The money to upgrade municipal sewage treatment plants so that the plants remove a great deal of the nitrogen and phosphorous from the wastewater stream should come from the flushers. Adding tertiary (nutrient removal) technology to existing sewage treatment plants would approximately double a person’s wastewater bill, amounting to the cost of about a bag of junk food each week. Considering the obesity problem in our society, better wastewater treatment seems like a more desirable expenditure of a municipal citizen’s income.

2. Nutrient management plans for nitrogen and phosphorous save farmers money in the long run, or so I have been told repeatedly. If this is true, why is public cost involved, and why hasn’t nutrient management been mandated for all agricultural land?

How will the money (what money?) be allocated? The following table, from the Eastern Shore strategy, is instructive:

Why is most of the money allocated to combat urban and “mixed open” sources of pollution, which account for only 11 percent of all pollution? Why is almost as much money earmarked to combat pollution from septic systems (2 percent of the problem) as is earmarked to combat the largest source of pollution (70 percent), namely agriculture?

If 70 percent of the money was spent on 100-foot buffer strips between agricultural land and waterways, the new buffer strips, along with mandated nutrient management plans, would make a difference in the Bay.

Dr. Lynton S. Land
Ophelia, VA

Don’t discount waste from septics

Biologist Jim Cummins pleads for the septic tank in his May commentary, “Think septics are always bad? Then you don’t know sewage,” and where there’s a lot of land, he makes some good points.

But septic systems don’t do a very good job of removing nitrogen without the mechanical system upgrades he mentions. There are very few of these better-designed systems around the Chesapeake today, and they require unpopular maintenance and inspections.

Near the Bay and its tributaries, especially on older, small lots, I fear they transmit a lot more nitrogen to natural waters than managers are willing to admit. Septic groundwater releases were one of the prime sources of trouble around Maryland’s Solomons Island. Drainfields also clog when regular pumpouts are forgotten.

The Chesapeake Bay Program- sponsored septic study (after the 1990 census) I believe is one of the least appreciated and most poorly circulated studies in the program’s panoply of reports, but even there, the estimates of inground and instream processing of nutrients was, I'm afraid, pushed higher to minimize the problem in favor of more tractable and politically popular control strategies.

Let’s push the bandwagon out for composting and zero flush toilet systems. We who live near the Bay and its rivers need to take more personal responsibility for our wastes.

Kent Mountford
Lusby, MD