Prince William Conservation Alliance

Local Creeks Head To The Chesapeake Bay: What’s In Store For The Future?

(NOTE: from the November, 2003 Prince William Community Report)

"Save the Bay" is a nice slogan on a bumper sticker, but how can we clean up the Chesapeake Bay? After all, it's estimated to be a $10-20 billion challenge. Where will we find that money? (If you pay taxes, maybe you already know how some polluters want to fund the cleanup…)

The Chesapeake Bay is at the end of the line. All the streams that flow into the bay bring their pollutants with their water. The toxics, the nutrients (fertilizer), and the sediment accumulate and settle in the Bay. In addition, some air pollutants are carried into the bay with raindrops.

The bay is a shallow basin, with an average depth of just 23 feet. It has an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia Beach, but the exchange of ocean/bay water is not enough to flush the basin clean very quickly. There's a little bit of filtering of the water in the bay by the oysters and fish, but that too is inadequate. And no one thinks we can put a giant sewage treatment plant on the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay, like some artificial liver and kidney, to process the bay water until it is safe for recreation and wildlife.

The only realistic answer is to put fewer pollutants into the bay in the first place. We have to stop pouring so much toxic material, nutrients (especially nitrogen), and sediment into the streams that flow to the pay. Our only way to "Save the Bay" is to first save the tributaries that flow into the bay, including the Occoquan River and the coastal creeks of Prince William - Marumsco, Neabsco, Powell, Quantico, and Choppwansic.

So we will get a two-fer from saving the bay - we'll make our local waters "swimmable" and "fishable" in the process of meeting Virginia's part of the multi-state commitment to clean up the Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the deadline and quality standards, based on authority in the Clean Water Act. Virginia must satisfy EPA, or the Federal authorities are required to act.

Virginia has calculated how much pollution must be reduced in each tributary program in order to get the Chesapeake Bay removed from the list of impaired waters. The "tributary strategy" allocates the pollution control costs to each watershed, based on how much excess pollution is being contributed by each watershed. For example, the Middle Potomac watershed (including all of Prince William) is required to reduce the excessive amount of nitrogen by 50%, from 16,247,875 lbs/yr to 8,122,524 lbs/yr by 2010.

Complicated mathematical models were used to define the acceptable level of pollution each area can contribute to the Bay. The same models are used to determine how different pollution control strategies can be implemented to reduce the toxic material, nutrients (primarily nitrogen and phosphorous), and sediments that flow into each tributary.

In essence, what we have is a report card for each tributary. If the pollution flowing into that stream exceeds the thresholds identified in the tributary strategy, then that stream fails the test. Every community dumping excessive pollution into that particular stream can be identified as a "slacker," a place that is not doing its part to clean up the bay.

Communities will obviously try to identify the most cost-effective techniques to reduce pollution. The tributary strategies have pollution reduction targets for three categories - point sources, urban runoff, and agriculture. Communities whose wastes flow into a tributary can negotiate adjustments in the thresholds for each category, so long as the overall level of pollution reduction still occurs.

It is far cheaper to clean up the headwaters of the streams in rural areas than it is to fix the problem further downstream. If an area is already urbanized, all of the options will be expensive. Arlington and Alexandria may have no choice but to invest in reducing more urban runoff from streets and roofs, by implementing low impact development strategies for new construction or even building more stormwater management ponds.

Arlington and Alexandria have already reduced pollution dramatically. New wastewater treatment processes in Arlington and Alexandria will eliminate a substantial amount of the nitrogen now coming out of the sewer pipes and flowing into Four Mile Run and Hunting Creek. It will be extremely expensive to expand those plants to reduce pollution any further - those facilities are already crowded, with no vacant land for processing wastewater any further.

Highly-urbanized areas have point sources, and urban runoff, but no agricultural pollution. Prince William County is more fortunate. It still has undeveloped land. Farmers have been modifying farming procedures to reduce the amount of cow manure that goes into Cedar Run so Bull Run, and Prince William gets credit for reducing pollution at relatively low cost.

Prince William farmers can't reduce all the pollution in order for the Occoquan River and the coastal creeks of Prince William to meet the standards defined in the tributary strategies by the year 2010. The Virginia approach, in contrast to Maryland, has been to rely upon voluntary action rather than mandatory regulations of land use in order to reduce nutrients and sediment.

There have been some successes, especially in reducing nitrogen and phosphorous pollution by point sources - but even a hazy crystal ball tells the water pollution specialists that voluntary action is not going to do enough. Unless dramatic reductions occur in pollution contribute by urban runoff, the 2007 report card will record a failing grade for Prince William County.

Maybe the problem will just go away. If you like the "Gone With the Wind" approach of Scarlett O'Hara, you can just giggle and say "Fiddle de-dee. I'm not going to think about it. Tomorrow will be another day." If you think your children deserve better, or if you are thinking about the issues that will be "hot" in state and local elections in 2007, now is the time to start taking action.

Prince William Conservation Alliance