Chesapeake's `dead zones' set a record

5% of the bay lacked oxygen this summer

October 04, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

"Dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay - areas with so little oxygen that fish can't live - grew to cover a record portion of the estuary last summer, according to a federally funded monitoring program.

An average of 5 percent of the bay was classified as "anoxic" during the summer months, meaning the water had almost no dissolved oxygen, researchers from the Chesapeake Bay Program reported yesterday. The lack of oxygen suffocates oysters and drives fish and crabs in search of water where they can breathe.

The dead zones are the result of farm fertilizer and other pollution, which breed algae and oxygen-devouring bacteria. An August of stultifying heat and little wind aggravated the problem.

"It was the triple threat of excess pollution, lack of wind, and warm water temperatures that led us to see these record levels of anoxia," said Chris Conner, a spokesman for the bay program.

The amount of the bay without oxygen was the worst in the 21 years of monitoring, followed by 1993 (4.8 percent) and 1996 (4.3 percent).

"We knew it was going to be a bad summer, but we were all surprised it got as bad as it did," said David Jasinski, an analyst with the bay program. "We have knocked the system out of kilter by oversupplying the bay with nutrients" such as fertilizer and sewage, he said.

In another measure of the bay's ill health, the Chesapeake also had the third-worst summer on record for low-oxygen zones - areas that don't kill marine life but impede the growth and reproduction of fish, crabs and oysters.

An average of 30 percent of the bay had less than the 5 milligrams of dissolved oxygen per liter of water that is considered healthful for most fish. During one hot spell in August, 41 percent of the bay had these low oxygen levels.

Overall, the summer of 2005 was almost as bad as the worst summer on record for low-oxygen water, 2003 (which averaged 32 percent) and the second worst, 1987 (30.7 percent), Jasinski said.

"At a time when we should be celebrating improvement in the bay, we are being shocked by record lows," said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental advocacy group. "I think that everybody who cares about clean water should be outraged by these numbers."

Maryland made a good first step toward reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants last year by passing the so-called "flush tax," which will pay for almost $1 billion in upgrades over 20 years through a new Bay Restoration Fund, Baker said.

But he said the state now needs to address the large amount of pollution that comes from fertilizer being washed by rain from farms into rivers and streams that feed the bay.

To control this problem, Baker argues that the state should start budgeting about $100 million a year to enroll farmers in conservation programs that reduce runoff. The programs pay farmers to plant buffer strips of trees and grass along streams, as well as wheat and other crops in the winter to absorb fertilizer.

The $3.6 million made available by the state this year for cover crop programs was enough for about 950 of the state's 12,000 farmers, according to Baker and state officials. More farmers want to participate, Baker said, but there isn't enough money.

"We don't have a problem that needs a solution. We have a solution that needs to be funded," Baker said.

Erin Fitzsimmons, Chesapeake regional coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance, another environmental group, said the answer is more action by the state and federal governments to enforce the Clean Water Act and other laws.

The Bush administration has been weakening air-pollution regulations, allowing coal-fired power plants in Maryland and elsewhere to spew out nitrogen air pollution that is washed by rain into the Chesapeake Bay, helping to feed the dead zones, Fitzsimmons said.

She said the public can also help fight the dead zones. "The driving that we do emits nitrogen into the air, which ends up in the water. We could do more with car-pooling, bikes, hybrid vehicles, alternative fuels and public transportation," Fitzsimmons said.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said fishermen have been reporting terrible harvests of oysters and clams because these creatures can't escape from the dead zones and are suffocated by the lack of oxygen.

But catches of crabs and rockfish were good this summer, Simns said, because watermen know how to follow these creatures as they flee to the remaining healthy areas of water.

"Every summer seems to be worse. We don't look at the percentages, but we know what we see," he said. "The lack of oxygen is very destructive and very disheartening. ... We are losing the war on water pollution."

Other waterways across the country also suffer from low-oxygen zones, including the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana, where the Mississippi River dumps manure washed off of Midwest farms and other pollutants.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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