Back in the 1960s the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted that it actually caught fire. That event helped launch the nation's environmental movement, as citizens worried about the toll pollution was exacting on the country's natural resources.
The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, which reaches all the way to Shenandoah National Park, certainly isn't as polluted as the Cuyahoga was. And it's not about to catch fire. But it's not as healthy as it might be, either.
A new report (attached below) from the National Parks Conservation Association points out a range of concerns the organization has with the bay and its 64,000-square-mile watershed, and carries a number of recommendations that NPCA officials believe can greatly improvement the bay's health.
In addressing the issue, the parks advocacy group focused on two rivers -- the James River in Virginia and the Patapsco River in Maryland.
"These rivers are integral to the landscape of the Chesapeake Bay and their restoration is necessary both for the improved health of the Bay and so the national park sites located around it are able to tell the complete story of the cultural and natural history of our nation,” said Chad Lord, NPCA's water program director. “The health of the national parks in the Chesapeake watershed depends on the health of the landscapes that surround them. The parks around the Chesapeake face many of the same threats that the Chesapeake and its rivers face.”
Points raised by the NPCA about the health of the Chesapeake Bay include:
* Since Capt. John Smith sailed up the bay in 1604, the Chesapeake Bay acreage covered by sea grasses has diminished from an estimated 400,000 acres to about 70,000, and wetlands acreage has shrunk from about 3.5 million acres to 1.5 million acres;
* The bay's oyster beds have been decimated. Where it once took the shellfish three days to filter the bay's water, according to scientists' estimates, it now takes a full year. Early explorers, such as Capt. Smith, recounted veritable reefs of oyster beds. Today those no longer exist;
* Water pollution in the form of stormwater runoff carrying fertilizers, chemicals and sediments into the bay not only have impacted water quality, but led to a downfall in blue crabs.
Though work on restoring the Chesapeake Bay has been ongoing for three decades, according to NPCA, much remains to be done.
"In 1998, the Chesapeake Bay was listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act for failure to meet water quality standards, specifically for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Despite efforts to clean the bay, it still does not meet the standards," the report notes.
Of course, the group adds, the waters likely will never be returned to their 17th century condition.
From the time 10,000 years ago when the first American Indians inhabited this region, these waterways have remained a vital part of the lives of the people who depend on the rivers for transportation, sustenance, and livelihoods. Today they remain just as significant to the ecological and economic wellbeing of this region and our nation.
Although the Chesapeake Bay will likely never return to the state that Captain John Smith and Francis Scott Key saw at the time they penned their writings, we can use these historical accounts to reflect on the past conditions of the bay so that we can understand the opportunities we have to protect and restore them as much as possible. These reflections can guide discussions, influence policies and programs, and educate citizens about their role in restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
“Addressing these threats is critical to improving the water quality surrounding Fort McHenry, Fort Monroe and Colonial NHP and ensuring that visitors to the parks enjoy the natural surroundings as well as the historic cultural features,” Mr. Lord said.
“From the time 10,000 years ago when the first American Indians inhabited this region, these waterways have remained a vital part of the lives of the people who depend on the rivers and Bay for transportation, sustenance, and livelihoods. Today they remain just as significant to the ecological and economic wellbeing of this region and our nation.”