U.S. Water News Online
NORFOLK, Va. -- The two-year drought has improved water
quality and clarity in the Chesapeake Bay by reducing muddy runoff
from city streets, lawns and development sites.
The clear water has allowed sea grasses to flourish. Scientists
report that the grasses, which breathe oxygen into the bay and
provide shelter for fish a nd blue crabs, increased by 16,000 acres
last year, the biggest growth spurt since 1978, when such trends
first were measured.
The middle part of the bay, especially, saw a huge spike. In areas
around Tangier Island and Smith Island, two commercial fishing meccas
on the Virginia-Maryland line, grasses increased by 49 percent
between 2000 and 2001.
Other significant gains in Virginia waters occurred at the mouth
of the James River, the upper and lower Rappahannock River, and the
Piankatank River on the Middle Peninsula, surveys indicated.
The resurgence of grasses ``shows how Mother Nature can repair
herself if we give her half a chance,'' Environmental Protection
Agency Administrator Christine Whitman said in presenting the
Virginia's Secretary of Natural Resources, W. Tayloe Murphy Jr.,
said the environmental benefits of the drought illustrate how
important controlling land-based pollution is for the health of the
He said government has done a good job curbing pollution from
industries, s hipyards and sewage treatment plants, which all pipe
their wastes directly into waterways that feed the bay.
The big challenge today, he said, is getting a handle on indirect
pollution from farm fields, parking lots, construction sites, streets
and storm drains.
Scant rainfall also has meant fewer nutrients, chiefly, nitrogen
and phosphorus, washing into the bay. Excessive nutrients cause algae
blooms, which can steal oxygen from water, smother underwater plants
and kill fish.
All is not so sunny, however. Ecologically, the drought has its
Less rain has meant an increase in salinity. And this has
increased the incidence of two diseases, MSX and Dermo, that kill
Both diseases thrive in saltier waters, and officials and watermen
are predicting one of the worst oyster harvests in history this
winter, especially in Virginia where the lower bay is saltier already
because of its proximity to the ocean.
Overall, the bay's submerged grass beds increased from 69,126
acres in 2000 to 85,252 acres last year, according to federal
The bay used to support an estimated 600,000 acres of underwater
grasses, encompassing 16 different plant species. By 1983, aerial
surveys documented about 38,000 acres left.
State and federal leaders attempting to clean up the bay set a
goal in 2000 of 114,000 acres as a first step toward recovery.
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