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As Long as We Remember...

May 6, 2008

Improving The Chesapeake Part 1

Farrell Keough

We are facing yet another crisis. The Chesapeake Bay has algae blooms and low dissolved oxygen levels. After years of studies, programs, and billions of dollars, it seems we cannot prevent this body of water from being listed on the impaired waters list of the Clean Water Act.


Where would the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) be without these horrifying bodies of water throughout our nation?


When President Richard M. Nixon made the EPA a cabinet position, we had rivers on fire! This nation had allowed various industries to pollute our air, land, and bodies of water to the point that no level of excuses would suffice. The public was outraged. And rightly so!


We had such serious problems that tracts of land had to be closed to any public access. We had to have government step in with a heavy hand and begin to solve these problems. Unfortunately, if a problem is solved, government never seems to go away and various political action groups (and their lawyers) are never far behind.


Is this a commentary claiming the Chesapeake Bay is in pristine condition and needs no attention? No, but rather an outline of how to deal with existing – or “found” – problems in these types of environments.


On April 15, Mark Dubin, the Agricultural Technical Coordinator/Chesapeake Bay Program Office/USDA-CSREES Mid-Atlantic Water Program through the University of Maryland, Department of Environmental Science & Technology, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, gave a presentation to the Farm Bureau. While not present, I was sent the Power Point presentation. It is not unique among presentations I have seen over many years.


You see, I have a bit of experience in this area. I have a degree in Environmental Science, and I regulated waterways in North Carolina for many, many years – both through models and actual data retrievals. I have seen the fish kills and the heavy hand of government enforcing “solutions” which made no difference to the health of the environment.


Many of you will see or hear about these studies. To that end, I would like to point out a few important definitions.


Point Source: Basically this means something you can see. A wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) is an easy point source. It has a pipe that pours water into the river or stream. It "seems," as time has gone on, that farms have slipped into the realm of point source. This is not realistic.


A WWTP is a direct discharge and the levels of nutrients (and other constituents) can be monitored and "known." Farmland varies greatly through type of plowing, application rates, uptake of nutrients by the soil and plants, types of rain and actual sediment release, thus it has always been considered a Non-Point Source, which, of course, is much more difficult to monitor, attribute a problem, and regulate.


Atmospheric Deposition: This is very much up in the air. As noted in the presentation, ammonia is one of the atmospheric inputs. While this can become a gas, the rates of deposition are very difficult to monitor. In the simplest sense, ammonia transforms into nitrates and nitrites and from there into straight nitrogen. I am dubious of the actual ability to monitor these levels of deposition and translate that into general figures for regulating this constituent across the board.


Finally, (and keep in mind, this is a Readers’ Digest version) there is existing nitrogen and phosphorus within the system – the streams, rivers, and the bay.


Simplistically, a bay is like a bathtub. Water sits in it until some outside source influences this system. That outside source varies from simple rain storms, stirring up the existing sediment, to things like point source depositions, such as a wastewater treatment plant dumping the cleaned water into the rivers or streams, to the major cleaning agent of a bay, like a hurricane. Yes! The major system to clean a bay is a hurricane.


Okay, let's note some basic facts.


All streams and rivers have sediment. Regardless of the land use, rain has an amazing effect on the land, and all storms add sediment to the waterway. This cannot be regulated away! It can be mitigated, but it is a constant of nature.


For instance, in the mountains of North Carolina, the people in that area, from NRA activists to vegan’s are tough who do not depend upon government to solve their problems, formed this diverse group who worked to mitigate runoff and sediment problems. They planted and kept in check trees like the river birch to keep the stream edges held together as best as possible.


Keep in mind that rivers change course naturally, so determination of where to employ these methods had to be thought through rigorously and changed on occasion. But, it was a process in which the landowners and those interested in stream rehabilitation worked together for both to benefit – unlike the heavy hand of government forcing an action, which may not prove to be a solution.


Once again, we have had years of studies, programs, and billions of dollars, yet the problems remain.


But, what – you may ask – is the reason for this column? The strong potential for new government regulation exists because of this and other reports. But, the one-size-fits-all solution will not work and, further, will harm many in our community.


Tomorrow we’ll provide a further explanation of the situation and possible impacts. Keep in mind, while you may not be directly affected, your neighbors will be affected. Who those people are and why this is important will be examined.

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