Keeping pollution
at bay

Wayne Gilchrest describes how cutting freshwater pollution can preserve wetlands and restore valuable marine ecosystems

Pulling my oar through the waters of Turner’s Creek, propelling my canoe toward the Sassafrass River, I felt a resistance I hadn’t known in decades. Glancing down I saw full, healthy, green seagrass breaking the water’s surface 2 metres above the creek bed. Against all odds, the grass had returned this past summer. It is these very seagrass meadows, so long missing, that are one of the keys to the health of the Chesapeake Bay – or conversely a sign of its sickness.

As nitrogen runoff overloads the Bay at roughly 300 million tonnes per year, algae feed off the fertilizer and bloom to overwhelming proportions, soaking up the light and oxygen needed by seagrass and other vital elements of the Bay’s ecosystem. As the meadows die off the Maryland blue crab, the pride of the Chesapeake, loses its natural hiding place. Rockfish – whose population has recently rebounded due in large part to a moratorium in the Chesapeake begun in 1985 and gradually phased out over the last several years – then feast on their exposed prey. As crab populations decline, their ability to act as natural waste managers goes with them, and the downward environmental spiral continues. The return of seagrass, in my mind, demonstrated the Bay’s resilience in the face of tremendous pressures and was a signal of hope for everyone in its watershed. It turned out that the grass had returned due to a severe drought over the spring and summer of last year which drastically reduced the amount of runoff from land in the region. Less rain means less runoff. The grass responded by flourishing as it had done only in the memories of watermen in bygone days. So, while we clearly cannot – and should not – hope for constant summers of droughts, the short-term rebound has reaffirmed my faith in the measures we have taken, and will continue to take, to promote the long-term health of the Bay.
Wetlands offer a value to our economy in the form of natural waste management
Policy model
The Chesapeake Bay presents an interesting model for environmental policy-makers. Situated in a densely populated region, it takes a regular environmental beating from airborne and land-based sources of pollution from hundreds of kilometres away, including urban and suburban runoff made all the worse by sprawl and outdated sewage treatment plants. Methods to curb the threats to the Bay’s health are well known but underfunded. I have long supported programmes that offer farmers and landowners incentives to reduce nutrient runoff while keeping working land productive. During last year’s Farm Bill debate in the US Congress, my colleagues and I advocated increased funding for the US Department of Agriculture’s conservation programmes: these offer farmers the opportunity to create stream buffers that absorb and reduce runoff, protect and restore important habitats, and support soil conservation measures that benefit the economy and the environment.

My amendment to the Farm Bill would have protected hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands and other important habitats each year: wetlands offer a value to our economy in the form of natural waste management that far exceeds what we could ever accomplish without them. Our proposal would also have prevented thousands of acres of productive farmland from being converted to development. What better way to reduce runoff than to attack pollutants at the source?

Although our comprehensive agriculture conservation amendment fell a few votes short, the final Farm Bill included unprecedented levels of funding for conservation. It is imperative that Congress continues to provide strong support for agriculture conservation programmes, demonstrating that we are serious about protecting agriculture and our water resources.

Individual responsibilities
We also have other tools to address these threats. We must reauthorize and strengthen the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, paying careful attention to existing sources of pollution as well as new ones. But equally as important, we must reflect on what we can do as individuals. Before spraying fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides on the grass in our backyards, we need to ask ourselves if it is worth risking the impact on increasingly scarce water treasures.

The public must be mindful of the impacts they can have on public resources. Ultimately, it will take a concerted effort by policy-makers to create incentives for individuals to adopt more sustainable practices.
The public must be mindful of the impacts they can have on public resources
Hope for the future
As my old, rusty canoe slid over the seagrass meadow opening out into the Sassafrass River, I imagined myself peering through crystal-clear waters spotting oyster reefs and lush seagrass beds. My hope is that, in the not too distant future, everyone who canoes down a tributary of the Bay will find it teeming with fish and crabs dodging their every stroke. It is nature’s resilience that makes this vision a possibility, but it is only our resolve that can make it a reality

The Honorable Wayne Gilchrest is Chairman, Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, US House of Representatives.

PHOTOGRAPH: David J Cross/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | World Environment Day | Water is life | The water century | Taking it at the flood | Renewing the commitment | Waterless cities | Keeping pollution at bay | People | At a glance | Changing agenda | Nor any drop to drink | Bridging troubled waters | Books & products | Getting there | Sinking fast | Waste not | Water – the poor’s priority | Atomic power

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Freshwater, 1998

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Freshwater wetlands
Mangroves and estuaries