An article in last Sunday’s Virginian-Pilot does a good job of explaining the stormwater pollution problem in the Chesapeake Bay: the sources of pollution, why it’s harmful to the bay, and what residents can do to help—or at least what they can do to stop contributing quite so much to the problem.
Stormwater is still a growing source of pollution to the bay, particularly the nutrients that cause algae blooms. And still it’s difficult to get the public to understand the concept of nonpoint-source pollution—here in the six states and Washington DC that are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, just as much as in areas that don’t border such a sensitive receiving water. Part of the problem is that it just looks so darned innocuous. The article quotes a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: “If stormwater was dark and gross and measured in barrels, you wouldn’t have to do this. Usually it just looks like fast water with bubbles in it.”
Articles like this one, though, that cover the effects of stormwater in a thoughtful and engaging way, can do a lot to increase public understanding. The article even touches on the concept of the airshed, explaining that atmospheric deposition contributes pollutants, especially nitrogen, either directly to the bay or onto surfaces in the 64,000-square-mile watershed, from which they can be washed into the bay.
The paper is running a series of articles focusing on the bay and on new federal guidelines for cleaning it up. Over the last few months, the EPA has been holding “listening sessions” and webcasts on the potential new Chesapeake Bay requirements, and it has another listening session scheduled for this week. You can find more on the potential new regulations and information on how to submit your comments to EPA here.
FROM waterheadlines digest:
2) Stakeholder Input on Stormwater Rulemaking Related to the Chesapeake Bay
Since October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has held five listening sessions and one webcast on potential Chesapeake Bay watershed-related requirements of the national stormwater rule to strengthen stormwater regulations and to establish a program to reduce the impact of stormwater discharges from new development and redevelopment. The Agency is announcing an additional stormwater listening session scheduled for December 15, 2010 from 6:30 - 9:00 p.m. EST in Georgetown, DE. EPA will summarize potential provisions of the stormwater rulemaking with respect to the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the public will be invited to provide comments. EPA will also address environmental justice considerations and potential impacts and benefits that may arise as a consequence of the rulemaking.
For more information on the listening session, the potential rule and instructions for submitting written comments: www.epa.gov/npdes/stormwater/rulemaking.
By Diane Tennant
© December 12, 2010
The storms blew through Hampton Roads on a Thursday in August, and after the storms came runoff, lots of it, shooting off roofs and pavement into storm drains, and a week after the runoff came the red tide.
At Ocean View in Norfolk, the waves were mahogany with pale-red caps, stained by a sudden growth spurt of algae.
“How long have you seen it there?” Chris Moore, a science advocate for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, asked the lifeguard on duty. “It came up, like, yesterday,” the lifeguard said.
On average days, there is a little algae in the water. After a storm, there may be 100 times more, because so much nitrogen and phosphorus – the basics of fertilizer – is flushed into the Chesapeake Bay.
Fertilizer makes grass thick and plentiful; it does the same for algae. But while a lush green lawn is taken as a sign of health, a thick algae bloom indicates sickness in the Bay and death by suffocation for much of what lives there.
Where the red waves broke on Ocean View beach, a family played, between two enormous drain pipes.
“They’re stormwater pipes,” Moore said. “Our stormwater runs untreated right into the Bay.”
Algae blooms are becoming more common as nitrogen pours into the Bay, coming not only from construction sites and farm fields, but from lawns and car exhausts and pet feces and more – in other words, from you.
Parts of six states – Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and, amazingly enough, New York – along with the entire District of Columbia drain into the Chesapeake Bay, a watershed of about 64,000 square miles. Parts of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk do not, in fact, drain into the Bay; they drain south, into Currituck and Albemarle sounds.
When it rains – even when it doesn’t rain – what pours into the Bay from most of Hampton Roads is our garbage, carried by the generically called “stormwater,” which includes liquid from clouds or sprinklers or buckets, as well as drainage from farm fields, construction sites and parking lots.
While Bay cleanup efforts over the years have reduced pollution coming from sewage treatment plants and industry, runoff from urban and suburban areas has gotten worse. It is, in fact, the only source of pollution to the Bay that still is increasing, and it’s all perfectly legal.
“It’s invisible,” said Mike Gerel, staff scientist for the foundation’s Virginia office, who advocates for stronger regulation of stormwater. “If stormwater was dark and gross and measured in barrels, you wouldn’t have to do this. Usually it just looks like fast water with bubbles in it.”
The problem with stormwater is twofold: it moves fast, so it erodes the ground as it goes, picking up dirt and sediment that cloud Bay water, and it carries nitrogen and phosphorus that fuel algae blooms. Once the blooms die, the decomposition process pulls oxygen out of the water.
“When the oxygen runs out, the crabs and fish that people care about die,” said Deborah Bronk, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and a nitrogen researcher.
For many years, the watershed states and the federal government have limited the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus – together called “nutrients,” because they feed plants – that goes into the Bay from sewage treatment and other facilities.
Even so, Bronk said, one of the frustrating questions is why the Bay isn’t getting better faster.
“I mean, it still pretty much sucks out there,” she said, “and there have been billions of dollars spent to clean up the Bay.”
For starters, the ingredients of fertilizer have changed. Nitrogen comes in two forms. Inorganic includes ammonium, nitrate and nitrite. Everything else is organic nitrogen, which includes urea, amino acids and proteins.
The Fertilizer Institute, a trade association for the industry, says use of urea fertilizers has climbed since the 1970s. “One of the things we’ve learned about urea is that a lot of the harmful algal species love it,” Bronk said. “I mean, really love it.”
Wastewater treatment plants are quite good, she said, at removing inorganic nitrogen from the water they discharge into the Bay, but not so good at removing the organic.
“Can organisms use it?” Bronk asked. “The answer is a big 'Yes.’ ”
Nutrients also can enter groundwater, which slowly leaches into the Bay. The U.S. Geological Survey says that even if no more nitrogen were applied to the land starting today, it would take until 2040 to get it out of the groundwater.
In addition, an enormous amount of nitrogen and phosphorus is attached to dirt particles in the bottom of the Bay, Bronk said.
“Even if we were to stop it all from coming in, you probably still would have a problem for many years to come because there’s so much of this stuff tied up in the sediments,” she said. “That kind of stuff accumulates on land, too, and a big storm gives a big slug of it into the Bay. It’s not just a day’s worth of rain. It’s a day’s worth of rain washing in a month of accumulated gunk.”
The gunk comes from everywhere.
About one-third of all nitrogen going into the Bay comes from the air: from vehicles, gas-powered lawn tools, dry cleaners, factories, power plants, gas stations and more, according to the state/federal Chesapeake Bay Program. They release nitrogen into the air and it falls directly into the Bay or it settles on rooftops and streets and land, where stormwater flushes it into streams and drains that carry it to the Bay.
“That makes the problem even bigger,” Bronk said. “An airshed for the Chesapeake Bay? God, it’s like half the U.S.”
It is, in fact, 570,000 square miles, about nine times the size of the watershed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
And then there are the other sources, which can seem so insignificant in a single yard. Grass clippings and pet feces that wash down storm drains are decomposed by bacteria. But that process requires oxygen, pulled from the water.
About 7 million pounds of pet feces are left on the streets of Washington, D.C., alone each year, and they wash into the Potomac River, and that empties into the Bay, according to the book “Turning the Tide.”
So how to stop it? Tougher regulations are coming; new federal limits on stormwater runoff will go into effect in 2012. Virginia’s proposal to the EPA focuses on sewage treatment plants, golf courses and municipal lands, farm stream buffers and nutrient trading.
Homeowners can do their part, too. First of all, cut back on fertilizer use and pick up after your pet. Then remember that fertilizer feeds plants. More plants on the shore and in shallow water mean more nitrogen is removed from stormwater before it can feed the algae.
For that reason, John Stewart and Mike O’Hearn of the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership took an afternoon in the fall to visit Shenandoah Avenue in Norfolk, where Roy Allan Dudley lives.
They stood in Dudley’s back yard, looking out on Wayne Creek, which leads into the Lafayette River, and at a muddy cove that has been, over the years, filling with sediment. Dudley wondered whether planting marsh grasses in the cove would filter the runoff coming from his yard.
With the help of Norfolk’s Bureau of Environmental Services, the partnership has created nutrient-absorbing wetlands in various spots throughout the city, working with the Highland Park Civic League, Larchmont Elementary School and the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Virginia. Dudley’s yard was its first venture in working with a single homeowner.
At 46th Street and Colley Avenue, the partnership replaced soil along an eroded stream bank and planted it with 1,500 square feet of marsh grass and shrubs that became a thick, green wetland full of flowers and birds and animals. The partnership wants to restore wetlands like that all along the Lafayette River, where much of the shoreline has been replaced by bulkheads or otherwise developed.
Even people who don’t live near water add nutrients to the Bay, said Christy Everett, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Hampton Roads office, because of stormwater runoff. Their choice, she said, is whether the runoff goes through a green filter or a gray funnel: through grass and wetlands and forests or through storm drains.
Dudley led the partnership men down the street to show them a wetland behind another house. The plants were beautiful, Stewart said, but he pointed to a gully cutting through the marsh and to a ledge where erosion was eating away the soil.
“It’s like the Grand Canyon,” he said. “You can see where the water runs off. I’m sure there’s nitrogen from lawn fertilizer. All those things could be stopped if we could stop the stormwater runoff up high.”
They saw, across the river, a family with children coming down to the shore.
“This is what I like to see,” Dudley said. “A little person who wants to go down and stick their hand or foot in the water.”
“That’s the whole impetus behind the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership,” Stewart said. “Let’s have a river where we can actually stick our foot in and feel good about it.”
“And,” O’Hearn added, “it’s not going to fall off.”
Some algae blooms are poisonous.Others can cause skin irritation and others nothing except aesthetic problems – they’re not very pretty.
Algae in normal numbers are natural residents of the water. Small animals eat them, and larger animals eat the small animals and, as Bronk says, pretty soon you’ve got a striped bass.
The Bay is worth an estimated $1 trillion in seafood harvests, hunting and ecotourism, recreation and property value, according to a 2004 report. Another study, looking at a watershed on the western shore of Maryland and published in the Ecological Economics journal, said a change in the amount of dissolved inorganic nitrogen of just 1 milligram in a liter of water – imagine your Big Gulp divided into 1 million equal parts, then separate out one part – can drop average housing prices in the watershed by $17,642.
“You have a much better chance of changing people’s behavior if you can clearly show them what they’re going to lose,” Bronk said. “What are you willing to do without? Water you can swim in? Fish that you can catch? Oysters on the half shell? Think not in terms of what the Bay gives you, but what you will lose if the Bay doesn’t get better. And you’ll lose a lot – blue crabs, pretty seaside restaurants. I mean, who wants to smell hydrogen sulfide as you’re having your imported lobster?”
The bacteria that decompose all the dead things in the water also create hydrogen sulfide, known to high school chemistry students as “rotten-egg gas.”
In a normal system, bacteria decompose dead plants and animals, creating nitrate, a form of nitrogen. Plants use nitrate to grow. Animals eat the plants and convert them into protein. When they die or defecate, bacteria convert the remains back into nitrate, and the cycle begins again.
But when too much nitrogen comes into the system, it causes too much algae to grow, and the algae block sunlight that underwater grasses need to make food, grasses that are nurseries for blue crabs and sea turtles and many kinds of fish, and the grass dies. That’s one problem. A second problem is that algae don’t live long. When they die, they decompose, a process that pulls oxygen from the water.
When too much algae leads to too much decomposition, which leads to too much oxygen removed from the water, animals suffocate. The animals that can’t leave, such as oysters and mud worms and clams, die. Animals that can leave will try to do so, sometimes scrambling out of the dead zone onto piers or crab pots or shorelines in a frantic effort to breathe.
When blue crabs rush out of the water like this, it’s called a crab jubilee. A jubilee occurred near the Hague in Norfolk about two years ago, on the pilings next to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dock.
It’s a sad affair when aquatic animals find the water so inhospitable that they leave it en masse. It happens more and more because humans are doing just the opposite.
Close to 17 million people live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and about 165,000 join them each year. By 2030, the population is expected to be nearly 20 million.
Between 1970 and 2000, the average number of people in a household in the Bay watershed shrank, but lot sizes increased by 60 percent, and the average house grew from 1,500 to 2,265 square feet.
Each house has a roof, a driveway and streets to make it accessible, plus lawns that often are treated with fertilizer. The people who live there travel to stores, which also have roofs, plus parking lots and sidewalks. Commuters drive to work on highways, each car spewing exhaust into the air and dripping bits of oil.
All those roofs and paved areas are called impervious surface, meaning that water can’t penetrate it. Rain, runoff from lawn sprinklers, water from car washing – it all becomes stormwater, which the cities of Hampton Roads collect with a vast system of pipes and ditches, and then dispose of as quickly as possible by dumping it straight into the Bay.
A 1-acre parking lot produces 16 times more runoff than a meadow of similar size, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. As little as 5 percent impervious surface can harm the animals and plants living in or along natural streams because the runoff moves faster and carries more sediment. Hampton Roads is about 60 percent impervious surface.
One local family, again on Norfolk’s Shenandoah Avenue, decided to do something about it.
Ruth McElroy Amundsen and her family live in a house with a paved driveway and a small back yard that abuts Wayne Creek. It also has a green roof, solar panels, native drought-resistant plants and a rain garden. There’s a little grass, so her kids can play outside, but when they leave for college, the lawn will go, too, to be replaced by shrubs and trees and ground cover and a food garden.
“The problem with this area is that you have so much impervious surface,” she said. “We’re basically capturing all our impervious surface runoff.”
Part of the roof is covered with low-growing flowering plants called sedum. They absorb runoff, filter out the nitrogen, attract birds and butterflies, and insulate the house, reducing heating and cooling costs. Another part of the roof drains into a 3,000-gallon cistern, which is used to irrigate the sedum and yard plants, and to flush a toilet.
“The great thing about this is it’s filtering all the water that falls on it,” Amundsen said, looking over the green roof from her home office. Depending on the intensity of a rainstorm, the roof decreases runoff by 30 to 80 percent, she said.
Her neighbor has a green roof. An office building in downtown Norfolk has one. A few schools have them. Norfolk Botanical Garden’s education building has one. And Amundsen helped persuade her employer, NASA, to put one on its new construction at Langley Research Center.
The family was inspired in part by algae blooms in the Lafayette River.
“I take my kids out to water ski, and it’s just a mess,” Amundsen said. “We have to look where we drop people because of red algae blooms. I don’t want my kids in it.”
On a blustery day in August, a week after ferocious rainstorms, when Chris Moore of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation drove around Hampton Roads, he found algae blooms in the Nansemond River, by the West Norfolk Bridge, across the broad expanse of the James River at the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-T unnel, at Ocean View beach, and on Mill Creek by Fort Monroe.
“We’re seeing the nitrogen pollution,” Moore said, gazing across the red water that lapped by the fort.
“Do you think that people really understand?” asked another foundation staffer. “Or do they just say, 'Oh, that’s a red tide.’ ”
“I don’t know,” Moore replied. “I hope they understand it’s a bad thing.”
Tomorrow: What are the new federal guidelines for cleaning the Bay?
Diane Tennant, (757) 446-2478, email@example.com