After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Our New Year’s resolution: Looking after our own backyards

Posted by Bill Dennison.

The recently released Chesapeake Bay Foundation report provided a Bay-wide assessment of the status of Chesapeake Bay as a whole.  While this high altitude view of Chesapeake Bay gauged against the John Smith Chesapeake Bay of the early 1600s is useful as a benchmark, it does not readily translate into local action.  This is because of the immense scale of Chesapeake Bay, especially considering the scale of the Chesapeake watershed.  Our state, county and municipal political boundaries are at much smaller spatial scales than Chesapeake Bay and watershed.  Our sense of time, particularly the political time frames of two, four or six year terms, are much shorter than the centuries that European settlement of the watershed have been impacting the Bay.  Thus, this view of “The Bay” does not promote local ownership of the issues of excess dirt, fertilizer, sewage and chemicals that lead to the degradation we see in the streams, rivers, and tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, resulting in the deterioration of “The Bay”.

In order for the farmers in Pennsylvania to have a stake in “The Bay”, the case for them to have healthy streams on their properties needs to be made.  They don’t need to have a stake in the oysters of the Chester River or the crabs of Tangier Island, but they should have a stake in their own streams.  That way, it will be their children and grandchildren who can swim, fish and play safely in their local waterways.  One of the more interesting findings that the scientists analyzing the stream data and the Bay data are reporting is the connection between the health of the streams and the health of Chesapeake Bay tributaries.  That connection would seem obvious, because it makes intuitive sense, but before last year, the connections were through complex models or indirectly through inference.  However, along with the release of the Eco-Check Chesapeake Bay report card, based on quantitative data collected at over 150 sites in the Bay and over 10,000 sites in streams throughout the Chesapeake watershed, a correlation between stream health and tributary health was made.  This correlation is more remarkable in that the stream health indicator used was the benthic macro invertebrates (e.g., caddis fly larvae) but the tributary health indicators included water quality metrics (dissolved oxygen, water clarity, chlorophyll concentration) and biotic metrics (benthic index of biotic integrity, phytoplankton index of biotic integrity, submersed aquatic vegetation).  These stream and tributary data are collected and analyzed by independent teams of highly skilled scientists, and the correlation obtained between stream health and tributary health confirms that if we can focus our restoration efforts on each bit of our own backyard–our local streams, then we can achieve the goal of restoring “The Bay”.

So our New Year’s resolution is to look after our own backyards.  This is where Chesapeake Bay begins and where we are all able to make a difference. It means farmers need to use precision agricultural techniques so that fertilizer is used by the crops and not entering the groundwater or directly entering the streams.  It means home-owners need to maintain and upgrade their septic systems or, better yet, hook up to an enhanced nutrient removal sewage treatment facility.  It means that elected officials need to enact and enforce laws protecting the environment; including disposal of animal waste and managing growth and development.  It means we all need to focus on our backyards–maintaining our lawns and gardens to retain nutrients and soil, curtailing our use of resources like energy and water, planting more trees and fertilizing less. By looking after our own backyards, we can have healthy streams, healthy rivers, and this will in turn lead to a healthy Chesapeake Bay.

One Response to Our New Year’s resolution: Looking after our own backyards

  1. This is an important and quite valid topic – outreach to non-environmentalist, non-outdoorspeople, about the local value of clean water. This need is great from the inner city to the highlands of WV and NY’s Susquehanna headwaters. Tutman speaks (and I think has written here) about that topic….preaching to the choir, as well as focusing on education and “awareness” instead of advocacy and action. We all do it so effectively!

    If we do not reach new audiences and convince them to act differently in their daily lives, or more importantly, to “vote clean water,” then ultimately, regulatory and fee-based fixes…..let alone government funded voluntary fixes…..will not work.

    It’s worth noting that the middle paragraph, which basically advertises and extols the exact data product produced by the author’s workplace, was not entirely necessary here, even though it is one example of a useful tool toward this goal.