Both of us have spent the past 25 years looking at the Chesapeake Bay as an estuarine system under peril, one as a scientist, the other a citizen activist.
We come with different backgrounds and roles, but with common objectives. We hope to further our collective knowledge of this magnificent national treasure and contribute to its restoration.
While the public commitment and political rhetoric to save the Bay is high, we are concerned that the pace of the cleanup is far too slow.
Scientific understanding is clearly far from perfect, but we do know a great deal about the root causes of the Bay’s decline. For instance, we know that approximately 300 million pounds of polluting nitrogen reach the Bay from a variety of sources annually and is the key cause of the Bay’s decline. And, we know that for the Bay to function in a healthy and productive way, nitrogen loads must be cut in half, at the least.
To achieve these reductions, there are a number of well-accepted strategies and feasible practices and technologies.
For instance, sewage treatment plants, if retrofitted with currently available technology, could reduce nitrogen loads by more than 40 million pounds per year.
Farming techniques are widely available to keep an equal or greater amount of nitrogen out of the Bay and its tributaries. If utility companies installed available technology at power generating facilities, 15 million–20 million pounds of nitrogen could be eliminated.
Restoring wetlands and vegetated riparian buffers can have enormous benefit by filtering pollutants before they reach the water. A net reduction of another 10 million–15 million pounds is possible.
Achieving modest improvements in fuel consumption standards for automobiles would also save many more tons.
It is clear that to cut nitrogen loadings by half, we will have to pursue all of these strategies, and more. There is no single silver bullet for cleaning up the Bay, but each of these strategies has been demonstrated to work — with a concerted effort this mission is possible!
However, progress in implementing nitrogen pollution-reduction strategies has been modest and not on anything like the scale that is needed. Most of the reductions have come from improved sewage treatment at only a few plants.
Improved farming practices have not yet resulted in a decrease in the total amount of fertilizer consumed within the Chesapeake watershed.
We may be just beginning to see some reductions in atmospheric deposition as a result of air pollution controls.
Although we are making progress toward interim goals for restoring riparian buffers, we are falling far short on wetland restoration goals.
Furthermore, population growth in the watershed (about a million new people every 10 years added to the current 16 million) increases the amount of nitrogen pollution annually. If the increase is not offset by more effective implementation of nitrogen reduction strategies, the Bay will be worse, not better in years to come.
Why are we not doing more? The answer basically comes down to will and money.
The political framework exists in the Bay Program. The blueprint of what must be done, backed by decades of scientific research, has been written. Named Chesapeake 2000, it was ratified by our political leaders in June 2000. Only the will to fulfill these commitments and the money to pay the costs, an estimated $20 billion spread over a decade, are needed.
The richest nation in the world has been unwilling to spend what is needed to repair the damage caused by a century of abuse to one of its most valuable natural resources, called a “national treasure” by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Further, regions around the world with similar problems of large-scale nitrogen pollution are watching the Chesapeake Bay for signs of progress. To twist the song lyrics a bit: “If we can’t make it there, we won’t make it anywhere.”
While the United States asks developing countries to stop destroying rain forests and plug their smoke stacks, we refuse to adequately treat our human sewage. Something is not right.
Our greatest fear is that in another 25 years, we will sit down to write a similar story. That must not happen.
Today, therefore, we call for a renewed campaign to save the Bay. From President George W. Bush to county council members, let every elected leader pledge to support the multibillion-dollar restoration effort that is needed. After all, the very survival of a national treasure is at stake.