Penn Johnson

Lessons from the Chesapeake Bay: How to Save Buzzards Bay from Nitrogen Pollution

by , 06/17/14

 

Algal bloom with a dead fish

The Chesapeake Bay was formed eighteen thousand years ago when glacial melting generated sea level rise that flooded the Susquehanna River Valley. Today, it is the largest estuary in the USA, covering about 4,500 square miles and spanning across 6 states. Population increase and industrialization have resulted in the pollution and deterioration of Chesapeake Bay, ruining the livelihood of local residents. If the people of Buzzards Bay, MA, do not help to improve nitrogen levels, a similar situation could happen in New England.

Pollution near a body of water
Image © Ramiro Figueroa

Population growth has sullied the Chesapeake Bay since colonial ships first arrived: Raw sewage, improper garbage disposal, and stirred sediment from anchors dragged along the floor of the Bay has led to excessive pollution. The commercial fishing growth due to population increase and local employment has seriously affected the Bay’s health, and products such as tributyl tin are thus prohibited from use. By-products such as petroleum and chemicals used for boat upkeep have tainted the Bay beyond easy repair. In addition, the Bay receives discharge from various factories and industries—this causes sedimentation that’s infested with metallic particles and organic compounds, creating toxic hot spots unfit for marine life and other biodiversity. Due to this excessive pollution, biodiversity imperative to the Bay has been lost.

Related: 19-Year Old’s Ocean Cleanup Array Could Clean Half the Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 Years, Study Shows

When John Smith first entered the Chesapeake Bay in 1607, he observed that the oysters “lay as thick as stones”. Oysters filter fifty gallons of water per day, removing phytoplankton and keeping the water clean. Researchers have estimated that oysters could once filter all the water in the Chesapeake Bay in less than a week; today, this process takes over a year, as most oyster bars have been depleted by overfishing and disease. The murky water in which they reside reflects the health of the marine life around them. In addition to diminishing oyster populations, sewage problems have lead to an excess of nutrients in which light-stealing phytoplankton thrive. Dying phytoplankton create oxygen-depleted waters, which result in the death of essential marine life, and that loss has a heavy toll on the livelihood of the Bay’s residents.

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Image © Tim Garlington

Those who suffer the most from the pollution problems and overfishing in the Bay are the local fishermen, or “watermen” as they are referred to in Laura Seltzer’s documentary Last Boat Out. Due to biodiversity loss, the waterman profession has seen a 70 percent decline in the past thirty years. This dying trade results in an increase in regulations to conserve marine biodiversity and prevent further pollution, such as females of all species being thrown back into the water to allow for sufficient repopulation. Similarly, dead zones stretch miles, and consist of marine life contaminated by the fertilizer runoff and agricultural waste nutrients, which result from commercial fishermen and farming practices.

 A Techno-Managerial Solution to Lower Nitrogen Levels

The Chesapeake Bay, like Buzzards Bay, has a history of problems regarding population increase and industrialization. When early explorers first came to Buzzards Bay in 1602, they thought it was the definition of paradise. A mere two hundred years after its discovery, Buzzards Bay lies at 45 on the toxic pollutant scale; the Chesapeake Bay (for reference) is at 31. Nitrogen is the most dangerous aspect to the health of Buzzards Bay, as it received a nitrogen score of 53 compared with the Chesapeake’s meagre 16. In order to lower nitrogen levels in Buzzard’s Bay, we need to:

  • Institute small-scale sewer treatment systems
  • Educate locals on proper waste disposal practices
  • Plant trees as buffers along the river banks

Only then will we be able to decrease the damage already done to the Bay and be a step closer to saving it from certain collapse.

Sunset on Buzzards Bay

Image © Tim Garlington

Small-scale sewer treatment systems to treat the waste from one part of town will make it cheaper and easier to reduce the amount of nitrogen and other unwanted nutrients that are entering Buzzards Bay. Residential development has caused high levels of nitrogen in the Bay, largely due to nutrient loading. This occurs when sewage generated by a large population strips the oxygen from the Bay’s water. The remedy to these sewage problems lies in the installment of small-scale sewage treatment systems—companies such as California-based EcoLibra have used the Resource Recovery System (R2S) experimentally and the results have proven positive.

When asked about his company’s invention, CEO of EcoLibra David Tratch said his “big leap forward” is the lack of set back distances and the ability to easily produce drinkable water. The R2S system is fully automated, easy to use, and produces water ten times cleaner and 30-50 percent cheaper than equivalent sewage treatment systems. Tratch thinks his system is ready to go global to help communities see that wastewater can be valuable and easily managed. Using this system, the towns along Buzzards Bay can decrease the amount of unwanted nutrients poured into the water.

Related: OTE Corporation Harnesses Cold Seawater for Fossil Fuel Free Air Conditioning

As improper waste disposal is one of the main factors in the deterioration of the Bay’s health, residents should be educated on how to dispose of surplus nutrients and chemicalsHere are a just few things residents can do to improve the health of Buzzard’s Bay:

• Dispose of marine waste properly
• Refrain from storm drain dumping
• Plant shoreline vegetation to soak up extra nutrients
• Buy Buzzard’s Bay license plates (whose costs benefit the Bay via donation)
• Eliminate fertilizer use (which makes its way into the Bay via golf courses and local lawns)
• Buy and use organic/natural fertilizer (slowly release nitrogen into the soil; vermicompost units)

Improving the health of Buzzard’s Bay will result in both abundant biodiversity and healthy residents. The Bay should establish a sense of place and belonging in young children rather than turn them off. It should be glorified and make members proud rather than cause worry about their health. We know the science, we have the tools; now all we need is the dedication to make a difference.

Photos by the Author, Photo Pin, and Tim Garlington

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