2009-10-22 / Letters

Fulton County And The Chesapeake Bay

Op-Ed
By Scott Alexander WATERSHED SPECIALIST FULTON COUNTY CONSERVATION DISTRICT

Most Fulton countians know something about the Chesapeake Bay. Many have visited its shores and enjoyed seafood, a boat ride or the unique scenery of the nation’s largest estuary. You may not know that all of Fulton County’s streams eventually drain to the Chesapeake Bay, through the Potomac or the Susquehanna River. Fulton County makes up less than 1 percent of the 64,000 square miles of land that drains to the Bay. With more than 16 million people living in the Chesapeake Bay drainage area, or watershed, Fulton County seems rather insignificant in its effect, good or bad. Still, Fulton County citizens can be proud that, while there is room for improvement, their streams are some of the healthier streams in the Bay watershed and their local efforts are making a difference, both at home and downstream.

The Bay has been the focus of significant restoration efforts over the last 30 years. Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have been working together to measure and improve the health of the Bay. Each year there are evaluations of the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and those evaluations have rarely been a cause for celebration. Despite significant efforts by state and local governments, the Bay still receives far too much pollution from that land it drains, most notably nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. In spite of huge efforts, water quality is improving at a very slow pace, with pollution delivered to the Bay by rivers and streams – originating from agricultural lands, cities and suburbs, septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, and eroded streambanks. Pollution is delivered by streams increasingly overwhelmed by runoff from fields, roads, parking lots and lawns.

There are some success stories to celebrate in the Bay – striped bass are thriving, native underwater grasses are being replanted, oyster reefs are being restored. Wastewater treatment plants have made impressive strides, achieving 67 percent of the goal to reduce nitrogen and 91 percent of the goal to reduce phosphorus from wastewater. Nitrogen loads delivered to the Bay from municipal and industrial wastewater dischargers declined by roughly 30 percent from 1985 to 2007. This achievement is particularly impressive when you realize that approximately 4 million additional people have moved into the watershed in that time period. That is a 25 percent population increase. With more people comes more impervious surface (parking lots, roofs, roads, etc.). These surfaces can more rapidly deliver pollution to streams and increase sediment erosion. During the 1990s, when the population in the watershed increased by 8 percent, impervious surface increased by 41 percent. In light of such tremendous population pressure, just holding our own, in terms of the health of the Bay, becomes a significant achievement.

While one could argue that Fulton County has a very small effect on the Chesapeake Bay, the Bay restoration efforts have had a significant effect on Fulton County. Conservation initiatives, driven at least in part by an interest in the Bay, vary from large-scale stream restoration projects, to a single homeowner deciding to plant a tree, or allow taller grass to grow between their lawn and the water’s edge. Local wastewater treatment plants have undergone upgrades. Many farmers have tried notill planting and winter cover crop planting to protect valuable soil from erosion, controlled barnyard runoff and more carefully contained and planned the application of manure on their fields. Local townships have improved roads and culverts near streams or begun to enforce state-led mandates about the maintenance of septic systems. Some of these changes have been required by law and many have been at least partially funded by grants, funded from public or private funds.

No matter the original source of motivation or funding, these efforts and others like them are improving and protecting the health of Fulton County waterways by improving local fisheries and wildlife habitat, keeping fertile topsoil where it can be better utilized by local farmers, and protecting Fulton County’s open space, which is becoming more valuable as the other 16 million residents of the Bay watershed look for a place to visit, or live, where country is still country.

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