Fishing and recreational water sports are big business in South Jersey, so locals will probably be quite alarmed to find out how bad things are getting just south of here in the Chesapeake Bay. Officials in Maryland and Virginia are reporting the largest “dead zone” on record in the bay stretching over 83 miles. When measured in June, the dead zone reached from the Baltimore Harbor to the Potomac River, and has since spread into areas along the Virginia coast. The dead zones are areas of the bay that are oxygen deprived, making them uninhabitable for most aquatic life.

The dead zones occur due to increased eutrophication in the water. Eutrophication is the buildup in levels of plant biomass caused by higher levels of nutrients in the water. In the case of the Chesapeake the eutrophication takes the form of large blooms of algae. The algae quickly move through their lifecycle with the dead algae stinking to the bottom of the water body and sucking up oxygen along the way. Without lower dissolved oxygen in the water the various marine species in the habitat die out or are forced to migrate to a new home.

The cause of these dead zones is nutrient runoff from throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Chesapeake Watershed is over 64,000 square miles, including parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and West Virginia. This nutrient runoff is primarily due to excess Nitrogen and Phosphorus from farms within the watershed. Additionally the spread of suburban development in the area creates more lawns and impervious surfaces, which in turn direct more runoff into the waterways.

The Chesapeake is a large and incredibly important ecosystem in United States. It is the largest of 130 estuaries (a body of water where fresh and salt water mix) in the United States. The bay is so large in fact that when counting its tidal tributaries it has more shoreline (11,684 miles) than the entire West Coast.  The Chesapeake holds over 15 trillion gallons of water, with a surface area of 4,480 square miles, and it supports 348 species of finfish and 173 species of shellfish, producing over 500 million lbs of seafood annually.

Home to an industry that produces over 500 million lbs of seafood annually, not to mention recreational water sports for residents and visitors of Virginia and Maryland, the continued health of the Chesapeake is critical. Beyond the economic impacts of damage to the watershed, as an estuary it is a critical habitat for spawning and adolescents of fish, both those that call the watershed home, as well as others that will venture out into the salt water environments of the Atlantic Ocean. Not does the destruction of this habitat threaten the species that reside in it, but many ocean species that can be found all along the Atlantic Coast.

A proposed plan by the EPA would place stronger restrictions on water treatment facilities discharging into the Chesapeake as well as farms within the Watershed. However the America Farm Bureau Federation is seeking a court order to block the EPA from imposing these restrictions and limits. The Bureau claims the enforcement of these new limits would put farms within the watershed out of business and the real culprit behind all of this pollution is the increase in impervious surfaces from development in the region.

The Bureau claims to have a strong commitment to water quality in the region, and isn’t seeking the court order because of any water quality issues. The Bureau maintains that the EPA just does not have jurisdiction to impose these rules, but that it is up to the states to set these levels.

While most evidence indicates that it is BOTH the farms and spread of development that are damaging the water quality in the Chesapeake, the Bureau brings up an interesting argument about who’s has jurisdiction over the Chesapeake and its watershed. While some environmental problems can be incredibly localized, more often than not pollution, specifically water and air, is likely to spread beyond state boundaries. Many federal environmental rules have their legality for just that reason; they spread beyond an individual state and can impact interstate commerce.

In the case of the Chesapeake Bay we have a shared resource which is vast and unique.  It is critical for action to be taken before it is too late. While farmers and developers in the watershed may not like some of the rules being put into place, there are many best management practices that can be used to reduce the amount of pollution deposited into the watershed. Considering the health of the entire region is important rather than needs of a few powerful industry lobbies.

For more information on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed: