A New Checklist for the Chesapeake Bay

The following is a guest post written by Mark Bryer. Bryer is director of The Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Program, which he started five years ago to coordinate the Conservancy’s efforts across six states to conserve the biodiversity of the United States’ largest estuary. Mark has worked for the Conservancy for more than 15 years, and during previously held positions led the development of conservation plans for freshwater biodiversity in North and South America. He has also managed projects supporting EPA’s office of Wetlands Oceans and Watersheds.

Flashlights, batteries, water, some games for the kids, and a fully charged cell phone. If you live along the eastern seaboard of the U.S., I’m sure your family had a similar checklist as you prepared for Hurricane Irene. Our newspapers and local weather teams on the evening news here in the Mid-Atlantic had been prepping us for over a week about how to get ready for the storm.

And it worked. The evacuations managed by state and local agencies and the preparations families and friends took at home likely saved lives and reduced the impact of the storm in Northern Virginia and Maryland.

However, what we weren’t prepared for were the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, which could ultimately be more costly to our region than Hurricane Irene. Significant portions of the Chesapeake Bay watershed received over 12 inches of rain in a few days from Lee. The United States Geological Survey predicts that this will be the third-largest water-flow event on record for the Susquehanna River, not far behind the dramatic floods caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. All that water runs downhill and into the Chesapeake Bay, washing sand, silt and pollution into our already degraded waters.

Hurricane Agnes hit with both fury and horrible timing ecologically. The tremendous water flow carried 20 tons of sand and silt down the river, burying fields of sea grasses at the mouth of the Susquehanna and in the upper Chesapeake Bay. These grasses are important habitat for crabs and rockfish— the nurseries really for the next generation of life in the bay — and the storm hit at a critical spawning time for the fish.

It took years for the populations to recover, and some argue that they never did. One thing we can be hopeful about is the timing of Tropical Storm Lee. We are late in the season, and juvenile rockfish are active in other parts of the Chesapeake, not concentrated in the sea grasses. But this doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods.

You’ve likely heard about the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or pollution diet, that has been enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the pollution entering the bay. Just as this “diet” is being adopted, the remnants of Lee may end up being a trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet for the Chesapeake Bay. This massive flow of water is not only carrying trash and debris with it, but also pollution in huge quantities. All of this could lead to changes in salinity and larger dead zones.

I grew up fishing the Susquehanna and now take my sons fishing for American shad and rockfish. I’ve seen the decline in the health of the bay first hand, yet believe that our efforts can restore the bay and reclaim the economic and ecological strengths that drive the region.

The storms underscore our urgent need to rebuild resilience in the Chesapeake Bay– our checklist, if you will, to weather more intense storms we face in the future. We must stick to the current pollution diet; celebrate fish, crabs, and oysters in the bay as both seafood and part of the ecosystem health; and protect and restore critical habitats on land and underwater. A resilient Chesapeake Bay is essential for people and nature.

(Image: Satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay. Image credit: NASA/GSFC, Rapid Response.)

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