Major Causes of Degradation of The Chesapeake Bay in Central PA
Gbenga Samuel Okusolubo
Central Penn College
The Chesapeake Bay is regarded as the largest and at one time the most productive estuary in America as it is an integral part the U.S natural and national history. Since colonial time, the Chesapeake Bay have been a source of economic resources for America (Warner & Kindt, 1985). Warner & Kindt (1985), denotes that each year, the Bay produced more than 500 million of seafood, support the growth and habitation of aquatic wildlife, function as the major hub for shipping and commerce, and offer varieties of recreational activities and opportunities for both residents and visitors. The living resources in the Bay constitute a major part of the United States fishing industry. The USGS Chesapeake Bay Program reports that the Bay is approximately 200 miles in length and 4 to 35 miles wide at different points along the Bay covering 64,000 square miles of watershed, yet it has an average depth of only 21 feet (Jantz and Goatz 2007).
According to the Federal Leadership Committee for Chesapeake Bay (2010), the lives and livelihoods of 17 million people and 3,600 species of plants and animals are intertwined with the beautiful landscapes and winding waterways, with the rural communities and urban centers. The Chesapeake Bay provides important habitat for many marine species and migratory birds using the Atlantic flyway (USGS Chesapeake Bay Plan). These species, including oysters, depends on the quality of the water to feed and reproduce. The key species that influences the water quality in the Bay is the Easter Oyster (Osborne 1999). The Chesapeake Bay hold more than 15 trillion gallons of water and is fed by 50 major tributaries (or streams and rivers) every day the largest of these are the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 2010).
The Chesapeake Bay watershed includes parts of six states namely; Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington, D.C. The Susquehanna river flow through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland is one of the major river in America that fed Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna and Potomac are two major rivers in Pennsylvania that feeds the Chesapeake Bay. The state Department of Environmental Protection identified population growth in central PA counties, nitrate from fertilizers and farm animal waste washed into the Susquehanna and Potomac river are some of the factors contributing to the degradation to the Chesapeake Bay.
Factors Majorly Contributing Degradation to The Chesapeake Bay in Central PA
The central PA is home to thousands of residents, business operations and many economic activities. Although Pennsylvania doesn't border Chesapeake Bay, but 42 of its 67 counties lie within the bay watershed. Pennsylvania has two major rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed; the Susquehanna and Potomac. “Combined, they encompass 40 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and Pennsylvania discharges more nitrogen into the bay than any other state” says Hayes (2017). One of the major factor contributing to the degradation of Chesapeake Bay in Central PA is the continuous increase in population. With diverse communities and rich natural and historic resources of 42 counties in PA that lies within Chesapeake Bay watershed, it’s no wonder that thousands of people call the Chesapeake Bay watershed home. Every individual that lives in the Bay region affects the Bay through the consumption of the Bay’s aquatic and natural resource, air, water and land pollution and altering the landscape of the Bay area to fit housing needs. With the constant increase in population, pollution of the Chesapeake Bay in central PA counties and cities is rising at fast alarming rather thereby causing major concern for the need to protect the Bay and its aquatic habitants. According to the Chesapeake Bay program, “since 1950, the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s human population has more than doubled. Between 1985 and 2015, this number increased 34 percent, from 13.5 million people to 18.1 million people while experts believe this number will continue to rise, surpassing 20 million by 2030”. The PA state Department of Environmental Protection (2015) notes that when more people move into an area within Central PA, more land is cleared for agriculture and development. Housing and developmental programs can mean more impervious surfaces that block rainfall from soaking into the ground. This rainfall is pushed into storm rivers and streams like Susquehanna and Potomac, picking up nutrients, sediment and other pollutants along the way. “Polluted storm-water, also known as storm-water runoff, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Bay” DEP (2015).
Another major factor in Central PA contributing degradation to the Chesapeake Bay is agricultural pollution. According to the estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), there are more than 83,000 farm operations here, comprising nearly 30 percent of the 64,000-square-mile region (Chesapeake Bay, 2010). Agricultural practices like farming irrigation system, chemical federalizing, soil tilling and many more are common practices in central Pa. Poor irrigation like over watering farm crops can cause erosion and push soil sediments which contains chemical fertilizers and livestock manures into the river and streams which then flow into the Bay. It is a frequent practice for famers apply livestock manures on farm crops to increase better vegetation and increase growth and proper development of farm produce especially in central Pa farming areas. According to 2010 estimates from the EPA, manure accounts for 19 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorous while chemical fertilizers account for 17 percent of the nitrogen and 19 percent of the phosphorous entering the Bay which can fuel the growth of algae blooms (fungus) that can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of oxygen that plants and animals need to survive (Chesapeake Bay Program, 2010).
Several researches have shown that over 5.2 million tons of sediments enter the Chesapeake Bay each year. The land in the lower Susquehanna basin is intensively farmed, and conventional tillage whereby the soil is disturbed at the time of planting and harvesting. The PA state Department of Environmental Protection claims that each year, the Susquehanna River provides the Chesapeake Bay with one-quarter of its sediment loads. For decades, three large reservoirs that sit behind dams located along the lower portion of the river have held back some of the sediment pollution that would have otherwise entered the Bay, DEP (2015). According to the Soil Conservation Service, erosion in the Susquehanna basin is very high and over seven tons of soil per acre of cropland are lost every year. Chesapeake Bay Foundation spokesman B.J. Small (2015) in his interview with Pittsburg post said that, “the run-off sediments come off the farms and fall to the creek bottom, and the mud gets stirred up by heavy flow and other things. The nitrogen and potassium, which are good when they’re in the ground on the farm, combine in the water and remove oxygen. The first thing that happens is the bug life leaves and then the fish. The oxygen-depleted areas experience a toxic bloom. They’re hard to contain because they’re gone the next day. They reform on another part of the stream or river when the conditions are right again.”
It’s no doubt that the Chesapeake Bay is a source of natural and socio-economic blessing to the United States residents living along the Bay watershed and the aquatic creatures living in the Bay. The constant pollution and degradation of the Bay is proofing to be a major threat to aquatic habitats living in the Bay. Over 12,531 pounds of toxic metals flow through the Susquehanna each day, according to EPA's Chesapeake Bay management study. These toxic metals going into the river include cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, and zinc which have been proven over the years to be harmful element that can alter living conditions of the creatures living in the water. This toxic water from Susquehanna river at some point eventually find its way to the Chesapeake Bay along with the toxic metals in it which then cause more harms to the Bay creatures. The EPA also claim that “all of Cumberland County including Central PA counties & cities, and at least a third of all Pennsylvania Counties, drain industry and municipal wastewater treatment, plants discharge and other toxics elements including metals and chlorinated organic compounds into the Susquehanna River”. Last year, Chesapeake Bay Foundation (2016) identified five central Pennsylvania counties as the state’s biggest polluters which is making Pennsylvania to struggle in meeting clean water goals, and the fight to save the Chesapeake Bay. In an effort to save the Bay, residents of Central Pa and the general residents of Pennsylvania need to be educated either formally or informally about the Bay and its local waterways. Progress in restoring the Chesapeake Bay is increasing as PA government claimed that “since 2011, Pennsylvania has significantly reduced its discharges of nutrients from point sources such as wastewater treatment plants. Data show that Pennsylvania is on track for meeting phosphorous reduction goals. However, those same data show Pennsylvania is not meeting nitrogen and sediment goals. Pennsylvania must change its approach for the Chesapeake Bay” PA department of Environmental Protection (2016).
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