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As Long as We Remember...

May 7, 2008

Improving The Chesapeake Part 2

Farrell Keough

Yesterday we explored the health of the Chesapeake Bay. We noted various terms like Point Source and how Atmospheric Deposition can break down into those constituents which are to blame for the algae blooms and low oxygen levels within the Bay.


It was noted that groups exist which do not depend on government for their solution and actually work with land owners to develop solutions which are beneficial to all. Let’s now explore some of the possible government proposals for solutions to this problem.


One of these proposals being bandied about currently is something called “setbacks.” This would “protect” the land extending from the edge of the water back a certain amount of feet. It may also include the various types of required plantings around the river edges – it is still argued whether grasses or trees are the best edge plantings. But(!), a one-size-fits-all solution to setbacks is not the answer! Every situation is different.


Steep slopes and little growth can create more sediment runoff. Keep in mind that those situations are usually upstream with fast moving water. As that waterway moves downstream, it always widens and slows, thus allowing the sediment load to fall to the stream bottom.


The lower areas with flatter land tends to create specific outlets for water during rain, (dry river beds, cuts into the fields, etc.) and the sediment load is wholly dependent on the land use, method of mitigating runoff, (are fields plowed perpendicular to the waterway, thus capturing runoff) and most importantly, the quantity of rainfall.


This simplistic definition gives one an idea of how a one-size setback does not accomplish the desired end result. It is simply easy to enforce and gives one the "perception" of doing good for the environment without actually accomplishing that end result. The negative on the land owner very much outweighs the perception of helping our rivers.


But, let’s return to some of the reasoning behind the desire for these new government regulations.


Excessive nutrients in our waterways. But, nitrogen and phosphorus already exist in these waterways! They fall into the sediment and remain inactive. With a rain storm, they get re-introduced into the waterway. Rarely is this fact presented when discussing the health of our waterways.


There is no regulation that can mitigate this. Plants grow in waterways, die, and any nutrients within them, get trapped in the sediment. Also, any runoff – or point source – nutrients also get trapped. When it rains in the spring, these get re-introduced and new growth takes place. This is how nature works, and we cannot change that, regardless of how strong we allow our government to become.


Now, back to the bathtub analogy. You may remember from yesterday that I made the analogy that all bays are basically like a bathtub. Inevitably, all sediment and the accompanying nutrients end up in this bathtub.


This creates the potential for algae and other growth in the bay. This has always happened and will continue to happen. Good, bad, or indifferent, that is how nature works.


Because it is easily visible, the public, which does not understand this process, believes it to be bad. Keep in mind, I am not diminishing the negative effects, nor am I saying we cannot or should not do a better job. But what methods for mitigation we determine is the real issue? A one-size-fits-all setback is a terrible solution!


In this current presentation on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, it was noted that the model will not be used, but rather actual data. One of the slides shows that the model consistently portrayed a worse situation than actual data found. In short, the model was proven to be unreliable.


But, how can the potential affects of mitigation be determined except through a model? Since any new governmental regulations do not exist, one must either give a “best guess,” or bolster that “best guess” with a modeling scenario.


Think about it. You can take actual data, but how will you determine in advance if your regulation will have a good outcome? A hope and a prayer?


Nope. A model is needed to portray the possible outcome – so it must question if, in fact, this model will actually be tossed aside. Doubtful! But that, of course, brings us back to a one-size-fits-all government solution. There may be no basis in science to determine that one size, but it will be easy to regulate and may well pacify the public for a time – until the next crisis arises.


Also, real data can be a misnomer. Atmospheric depositions rely on discrete monitoring. Generally, worst case scenarios are used to obtain data.


For air quality monitoring, you will never see a station in an area that has no impact. They put stations in the worst areas for air quality and then determine that this represents an entire region.


Note: they may have a couple of stations in "clean" areas, but the areas with consistent backups on I-270 and the pollutants from the idling cars far outweigh any of these other monitoring stations. Hence, what we have is a situation where a one-time ammonia application with a strong wind can represent how all application is handled. This is not reality.


A monitoring station in a waterway near a farm that has recently been fertilized may find higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus after a heavy rain storm. But, that does not ensure the source is the farm. It may well be an upstream source and attributed to the farm land.


And again, as this waterway moves downstream, the constituents drop into the bottom sediment. Not all of these nutrients become useful to algae blooms, etc. This rate must be noted and measured against any mitigation strategy!


Finally, we have been spending billions on these bays for years and yet we are consistently inundated with how bad the situation has become. Sounds like something is not working here.


Also note we can now measure "pollutants" down to lower and lower levels, but that does not necessarily indicate things are worse, just that we can measure to smaller levels.


I quote the word "pollutants" for a reason. Waterbodies are not composed of just H2O. If they were, nothing could live within them. Waterways must have nutrients and minerals to keep plants and fish alive. An over abundance is a problem, but don't be fooled into thinking that clean water means pure H2O.


We all want what is best for our bays. But, we need to be vigilant that whatever measures are proposed will, in fact, achieve that end and not simply be an easy regulation. Those affected are a minority and the public is generally not aware of all the issues surrounding these proposals.

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