Ocean Currents

Misguided Lawsuit Threatens the Chesapeake Bay’s Recovery


There was a time when the water of Chesapeake Bay would appear to boil, but it was actually millions of oysters ejecting filtered water. The bay’s waters, the old timers tell us, were crystal clear. But agricultural run-off and untreated wastewater flowed into the Chesapeake for years, fouling the water and making our nation’s largest estuary a shadow of its former self.

In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) organized the cleanup efforts of six states within the bay’s watershed, including Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. The efforts to limit pollution going into the bay included improving municipal wastewater treatment systems (known as point source pollution) and reducing agricultural runoff (known as nonpoint source pollution). Plans were in place, actions were being taken, and traction was being made.

This progress is now in jeopardy.

Recently, attorneys general from 21 states (most of which are nowhere near the Chesapeake, including North Dakota and Kansas), voiced their support of the American Farm Bureau and The Fertilizer Institute, in their suit against EPA for the agency’s work to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The reason?   As written in the amicus brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit by the attorneys general, “If this [cleanup] is left to stand other watersheds, including the Mississippi River Basin, could be next.”

I had to read this several times to believe it. What their argument comes down to is this: If the Chesapeake Bay wins, our nation loses. And if the restoration succeeds, other watersheds might meet the same “fate.” The plaintiffs actually argue that the act of restoring one of the greatest places in the United States is governmental overreach. Amazing.

This lawsuit is completely misguided. Restoration of our waterways is essential to our nation, environmentally and economically.

Each year, agricultural and industry runoff sends millions of pounds of phosphorus and nitrogen into our waterways, ending up in larger bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico or the Chesapeake Bay. The excess nutrients create “dead zones” – areas that have too little oxygen to support life – in the water. Some marine animals, including shrimp and fish, leave the area in search of better conditions. Other animals that can’t move, like mussels and oysters, die.

Dead zones aren’t rare. In fact, they’re becoming all too familiar. One of the most famous dead zones appears in the Gulf of Mexico each summer, negatively impacting coastal and marine waters off Louisiana and Texas. Last year, researchers from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium measured dissolved oxygen concentrations off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas to determine the dead zone’s size. It was about 5,800 square miles, or roughly the size of the state of Connecticut.

In the Gulf specifically, there’s evidence that long-term consequences of the seasonal dead zone are taking hold. The lack of oxygen is taking its toll as ecosystems may be shifting as ocean floor habitats are largely devoid of life for months in some areas. Brown shrimp in Louisiana are forced to move, and other species – like croaker – are thought to suffer from reduced growth rates and reproductive success.

We get our food in all kinds of ways – some terrestrial, some aquatic. One form of food production should not hurt another. Farming should live in harmony with fishing. That is not a political issue. Fishermen and farmers are first and foremost proud practitioners of trades that provide all of us with the grain and protein we need. There is no reason why both cannot co-exist. And yet, when the waters die, and the fish leave, fishermen suffer as they are forced to go farther out to find displaced fish. When the oysters die, family-owned businesses are jeopardized.

The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world. The commercial fish and shellfish harvest from the states lining the Gulf totaled 1.6 billion pounds and was valued at $754 million in 2012. And recreational fishermen bring in even more business to the region. More than 20.7 million people visited the Gulf specifically for fishing trips. Those people spend money on food, hotels and souvenirs.

In the Chesapeake Bay, oyster harvests are less than 1 percent of historical levels due in part to changes in water quality. That said, the industry is still incredibly valuable. During the 2009-2010 season, the oyster harvest was valued at $4.4 million in Maryland and $5.1 million in Virginia. Most of the oyster farms along the East Coast are family-owned and provide hundreds of jobs to community residents. And those jobs support the jobs of others, including school teachers, grocery store owners, doctors and truck drivers.

Now, imagine the economic consequences that would be felt if the dead zones continued to take over bigger portions of our waterways and in a more permanent sense. Our fishing industry would collapse, costing real people their livelihoods and coastal communities their ability to survive.

These attorneys general may think they have the best interests of Americans in mind when challenging efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay, but their narrow view puts thousands of jobs and a significant U.S. industry at risk. Agriculture vs. fishing?  It’s a false dichotomy. We can have both.

Join me in telling these state attorneys general to end the lawsuit against the U.S. EPA, for the sake of the economy, the fishing industry and the environment. They should allow the restoration of the Chesapeake to continue. I couldn’t agree more with Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who was quoted in The Washington Post, “…don’t tell us how to restore clean water in our backyard. Together, we are well on our way to making our rivers and streams safer, improving habitat, protecting human health, and strengthening local economies.”

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