With most of Virginia’s land mass lying within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, people have a good reason to be worried about Virginians contribution to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. To be more precise, out of the 42,322 square miles of land area within Virginia, over 56 percent of that, or 23,898 square miles, drains directly in the Chesapeake Bay in one way or another (see Image 1).1 As if such a mass of land wasn’t bad enough, the majority of Virginia’s population also happens to live within the boundaries of the watershed. As you can see from Image 2, all but a few of the densest areas in Virginia are included within the watershed. In more empirical population terms, all but a fraction (part of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake City) of the top 18 highest populated cities and counties in Virginia are within the boundaries. These areas of high population are comprised of around 4.7 million people, well over half the population, just in that grouping alone.2
Foreseeing the future dangers from such a population in a small dominating area, the United States government passed the Clean Water Act, explicitly making it “unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained.”3 The goal of such restrictions is that all waters in the United States will eventually be fishable and swimmable by requiring jurisdictions to endorse quality standards that ensure appropriate uses for waterways. In order to do so, the Clean Water Act requires jurisdictions to develop an EPA approved list of “impaired” waterways every two years. A waterway that makes it to the “impaired” list by not meeting quality standards must have a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) established in an effort to meet those standards. This established TMDL can be seen as a “diet” for the waterway, identifying the maximum amounts of each pollutant that the waterway can absorb while still passing the quality standards.4
The Chesapeake Bay first made its way onto this “impaired” list in 1999, prompting the watershed’s jurisdictions, as well the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to draw up the Chesapeake 2000 agreement in order to commit to the restoration and protection of the bay.5,6 This agreement went without the required TMDL for ten years, allowing for the progress to fall far short in many of the areas set forth in the agreement. Finally, in late 2010, the EPA established the Chesapeake Bay TMDL with the hopes that stronger regulations and harsh punitive damages will force jurisdictions to do their part in the future.7
This TMDL is focused on limiting three main pollutants harming the Chesapeake Bay: nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment.4 Combining nitrogen and phosphorous, they both mainly come from the run-off of fields filled with fertilizer and manure as well as from various wastewater treatment plants. Sediment on the other hand, comes from run-off inducing urbanization where soil is replaced with asphalt, allowing for the pollutant to make its way directly into the bay before being filtered out.8 These pollutants cause a number of problems for the Chesapeake Bay, but the most harmful follow from the degradation of the area’s Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV). This vegetation can be seen as being the structural base of the ecosystem’s food chain, causing it to be essential to the health of the bay.9 For quite some time, these nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients have allowed for the rapid growth of algae who eventually die, absorbing the areas oxygen and creating subsequent “dead zones” where no SAV can survive.8 The sediment ends up suffocating the SAV of light, literally blanketing the area with a layer of silt that blocks the sun’s rays.9
Coming full circle with Virginia’s placement at the center of this issue, it is quite clear that Virginia has had a heavy part in failing the goals set forth by the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. As you can see from Image 3, 4, and 5, although Virginia isn’t the biggest supplier of nitrogen, it continues to be the source of almost half of the phosphorous and sediment finding its way into the Chesapeake Bay. It is my belief that Virginia will continue this current trend as it has over the past 10 years, failing to meet their commitments to “Save the Bay” as described in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement for a few main reasons: the population growth, neglecting concrete regulations, and the limitations of the agreement itself.
We’ve already seen that well over half of Virginia’s population lies within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but even more worrisome is that this area of Virginia is also growing at the fastest rate (see Image 6). For the past two decades all but a few of the high-growth areas have been inside the watershed, and with the Virginia-wide population growth trend (see Chart 1), this will only continue to be a problem. To get a better understanding on just how bad the problem is, Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads, all which happen to be inside the affected watershed, make up 70 percent of the state’s population and account for 82 percent of the state’s population growth.12 As stated best by the Chesapeake Bay Program:
Water quality is inextricably linked to population growth. Each individual that lives in the Bay watershed directly affects the Bay and its rivers by adding waste and pollutants, consuming natural resources and changing the landscape to fit their needs. Population growth leads to urbanization and development: more people means more land is converted to homes, roads and stores to accommodate them.15
We can further verify this statement simply by looking at the general health of the subdivided watersheds of the Chesapeake Bay watershed (see Image 7). Comparing this image to Image 2 or 6, we can see a massive correlation between clusters of waterways in very poor health and those areas of high density or population growth.
As stated above, this population affects the Chesapeake Bay directly in the manner of building houses, stores, and asphalt surfaces in order to support such a population. These sources end up causing the filtering soil to be covered, allowing for vasts amounts of pollution in the form of phosphorous and sediment to flow unscathed into the bay (see Image 10 and 11). Not only does this population contribute directly to the health of the bay from infrastructure building, but it also indirectly corresponds to the amount of “significant” wastewater plants in an area (see Image 8). These plants happen to be one of the top contributors of phosphorous and nitrogen, so as these areas of population experience rapid growth, we can only expect that more “significant” facilities will be built in order to deal with the population fluctuation (see Image 9 and 10).
Virginia also won’t be able to meet the commitments simply based upon the fact that the authorities seem to be pushovers, neglecting to explicitly require any action from those creating the pollution. Since the early 1990’s, Virginia has been able to develop solid strategies for reducing pollution, but they always seem to “rely upon voluntary actions by farmers and land developers to reduce non-point pollution” rather than imposing punitive damages for those who continue unaltered.8 Although this non-point pollution is not the only source of pollution, it does contain run-off composed of the majority of phosphorous and sediment, two pollutants that Virginia happens to be the top contributor of (see Image 4 and 5).18,19,20 Without future stern requirements from Virginian authorities, there’s absolutely no way that anyone, especially the “power hungry” corporations, will change their current practices in order to collectively allow for Virginia to “Save the Bay.”
Finally, Virginia will not meet the commitments found in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement simply because many of their deadlines have already passed.7 Out of the entire agreement, many of them ended either on or before December 31, 2010, meaning that Virginia has no legal obligation to the commitments made in that agreement. Only a portion of the “Sound Land Use” section, one of five major sections in the agreement, continues to be valid until the end of 2012. The valid portion of the section reflects the jurisdiction’s commitments to “reduce the rate of harmful sprawl development of forest and agricultural land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by 30 percent,” showing that the authorities at least had one of the most pollutant-causing areas in mind when signing this agreement.6
1 “Virginia’s Major Watersheds.” Department of Conservation and Recreation. Department of Conservation and Recreation. Web. 01 Nov. 2011. <http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/stormwater_management/wsheds.shtml>.
2 “Geographic Comparison Table.” American FactFinder. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 01 Nov. 2011. <http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/GCTTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=04000US51&-_box_head_nbr=GCT-T1-R&-ds_name=PEP_2009_EST&-redoLog=false&-mt_name=PEP_2009_EST_GCTT1R_US40S&-format=ST-2S>.
3 “Summary of the Clean Water Act.” US Environmental Protection Agency. US Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 01 Nov. 2011. <http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/cwa.html>.
4 “Chesapeake Bay TMDL Frequently Asked Questions.” US Environmental Protection Agency. US Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 01 Nov. 2011. <http://www.epa.gov/reg3wapd/tmdl/ChesapeakeBay/FrequentlyAskedQuestions.html>.
5 “The Chesapeake Bay Is Impaired.” Northumberland Association for Progressive Stewardship. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.napsva.org/ChesapeakeBayIsImpaired.html>.
6 “Chesapeake 2000.” Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://dnrweb.dnr.state.md.us/bay/res_protect/c2k/agreement.asp>.
7 Blankenship, Karl. “After TMDL Process, Bay Program Finds Itself at a Crossroads – May 2011.” Chesapeake Bay Journal. Chesapeake Bay Program, May 2011. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.bayjournal.com/article.cfm?article=4103>.
8 Grymes, Charles. “Save the Bay.” Geography of Virginia. Web. 01 Nov. 2011. <http://www.virginiaplaces.org/chesbay/savethebay.html>.
9 Grymes, Charles. “Why Save the Bay?” Geography of Virginia. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://virginiaplaces.org/waste/savethebay.html>.
10 “Chesapeake Bay Watershed.” The Chesapeake Bay Guide. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.baydreaming.com/watershed.htm>.
11 United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Chesapeake Bay Final TMDL. 2010. Print.
12 Cai, Qian. “A Decade of Change in Virginia’s Population.” The Virginia News Letter87.4 (2011): 1-3. Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. University of Virginia. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://www.coopercenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Virginia%20News%20Letter%202011%20Vol.%2087%20No%204.pdf>.
13 “Population Growth.” CensusScope. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.censusscope.org/us/s51/chart_popl.html>.
14 “Virginia.” U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.census.gov/geo/www/guidestloc/st51_va.html>.
15 “Population Growth.” Chesapeake Bay Program. Chesapeake Bay Program. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.chesapeakebay.net/populationgrowth.aspx?menuitem=14669>.
16 “Watersheds : Overview.” ChesapeakeStat. Chesapeake Bay Program. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://stat.chesapeakebay.net/?q=node/131>.
17 “Sources of Nitrogen Loads to the Bay.” Chesapeake Bay Program. Chesapeake Bay Program. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.chesapeakebay.net/status_nitrogensources.aspx>.
18 “Sources of Phosphorus Loads to the Bay.” Chesapeake Bay Program. Chesapeake Bay Program. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.chesapeakebay.net/status_phosphorusloads.aspx>.
19 “Sources of Sediment Loads to the Bay.” Chesapeake Bay Program. Chesapeake Bay Program. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.chesapeakebay.net/status_sedimentsources.aspx?menuitem=20800>.
20 “What Is Nonpoint Source Pollution?” US Environmental Protection Agency. US Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/whatis.cfm>.
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- Decline in dead zones: Efforts to heal Chesapeake Bay are working (physorg.com)
- Decline in dead zones: Efforts to heal Chesapeake Bay are working (eurekalert.org)
- Chesapeake Bay Beach Club Unveils New Waterfront Event Venue (prweb.com)
- Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Environmental Issues (prweb.com)
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