Water quality has long been one of the measures of a community’s health. As work continues on methods to restore the Chesapeake Bay and the local streams feeding into the estuary, water quality remains paramount. Upgrades of wastewater treatment plants are primary reasons for point source improvements in the past 20 years or so. Local governments spend millions of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to meet the limits of technology to remove nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus especially – from the effluent discharged after treatment. Fairfax County shares capacity in several local systems – Blue Plains, Alexandria Renew, Occoquan, and its own Noman Cole Pollution Control Plant on Richmond Highway. All of these systems are award-winners for advanced treatment of wastewater.
Unmeasured non-point source runoff into our streams, lakes, and eventually, the bay itself, remains problematic. Non-point sources include ditches, parking lots, driveways, roads, lawns, farm fields – those spaces where rain water flows unimpeded across the surface, and carries with it sediment, fertilizer, trash, chemicals, etc. The resulting toxic stew is one reason why there is so much effort to reduce litter, curb the use of lawn fertilizer, impose soil management plans on agriculture, and educate the public about what should, and should not, go into storm drains. You may be familiar with amusing radio ads, sponsored by the local government members of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, about keeping oil, dog feces, and other nasty stuff, out of storm drains.
At the same time, universities are focused on scientific research to analyze current and historical data, and assess the effectiveness of urban and agricultural practices. A recent visit to the Horn Point Laboratory (HPL), an Eastern Shore environmental research facility of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, revealed extensive research into oyster restoration, as well as an interesting Atlantic sturgeon restoration project. The Horn Point Oyster Hatchery has deployed more than one billion oyster spat (tiny fertilized oyster “eggs” that attach themselves to anything solid and, in the right conditions, grow into full size, harvestable oysters). A couple hundred years ago, bay oysters were so plentiful that an acre of oyster reef could filter 140 million gallons of water an hour, and remove 3,000 pounds of nitrogen. Pollution, disease, and overharvesting cut oyster viability dramatically, and bay oysters today are about half a percent of the boom years for the bivalves.
A newer, and lesser known, project of HPL is Atlantic sturgeon restoration. These strange-looking bottom feeders with knobby protrusions along their backs can grow to a length of 14 feet, and almost disappeared from the bay between 1950 and 2003, but young sturgeon observed in the James River in 2004 encouraged the possibility of re-establishment of broodstock into the bay. We saw sturgeon of all sizes in the laboratory tanks, but permitting for release is not yet available, so the science project continues. We have a long way to go toward Bay restoration, but the work of HPL, and its sister organization, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), operated by the College of William and Mary, is moving in the right direction.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]