The news last week was encouraging. The annual State of the Bay report card, issued by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, gives the Bay restoration effort a C, the same as last year. If I brought home a C when I was in school, my mother would not have seen it as a cause for celebration. In Bay restoration circles, however, that second-year-in-a-row grade indicates that the local/state/federal partnership is working. Genuine progress is being made in the decades-long effort to restore the Bay and its tributaries.
Those tributaries are important. Many residents in the 64,000 square mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, which stretches from upstate New York to Tidewater Virginia, may never see the Bay. Residents of Pennsylvania and West Virginia may have little cognition of the Bay and its benefits, both environmental and economic. But those same residents probably recognize that the health of their local streams means fresh trout and other species, swimming holes, boating access and, often, the source of local drinking water. The less pollution that goes into the Bay from local streams, the better the Bay health and the annual report card.
As with any report card grade, there first had to be an exam. Submerged aquatic vegetation, also called SAV, is up. SAV is important because it acts as a “nursery” for marine life, protecting fish fry and baby crabs from larger predators. SAV grows best when there is water clarity, which also has improved. Fish populations have rebounded (A+ on the report card), crabs and oysters are more plentiful now. The Bay’s infamous “dead zone” also is shrinking. A lot has been accomplished since the original 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, but there is much more to do.
Local governments are in the forefront of Bay cleanup, even if they don’t share a shoreline with the Bay and its larger tributaries. Removing nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from waterways largely has been the responsibility of localities, their taxpayers and ratepayers, who usually are the same people. Updating wastewater treatment plants, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps has been the single most important factor in reduction of pollutants to the Bay. That’s good news, but local water and sewer bills have to increase to cover the cost of upgrades because state and federal funding is not adequate. Some localities, like Fairfax County, have instituted a stormwater fee to maintain the traditional “grey” infrastructure to control stormwater runoff, as well as build new “green” infrastructure, which is more environmentally friendly.
Readers may be saying “how can I help?” Changing behaviors is a start. If you have a lawn, fertilize in the fall, if at all, and follow package directions. Plant trees, especially those native to our region, if you have space. Reuse and recycle; trash in our tributaries is a huge pollutant. I’ll bet you have more than one reusable water bottle and shopping bag around the house already! Finally, never, ever, dispose of oil, leaves, or grass clippings in a drain or inlet structure. The Potomac River is our drinking water source. Why in the world would you want to pollute it?
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.