When Anne Croft fertilizes her tiny lawn in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood, she has no idea that she's contributing to the pollution that still vexes the Chesapeake Bay after 25 years of cleanup.
The federal and state governments have spent several billion dollars to meet a pledge to restore the bay's health, but the nation's largest estuary is still one of the country's most polluted waterways. Pollution so starves the Chesapeake Bay of oxygen that each summer, a stretch of it dozens of miles long is unsuitable for fish or most other creatures. And crab and oyster populations are at tiny fractions of historic levels.
President Obama is launching a new cleanup strategy and warns that if states do not reduce pollution, the federal government will take over the job.
Byproducts Of Modern Living Affect Waterways
But experts say a big part of the problem is that each of the almost 17 million people living in the Chesapeake's huge watershed contributes to the bay's bleak condition. Exhaust from their cars, detergent from their dishwashers, fertilizers from their yards, and waste from their septic and sewage systems are some of the many sources of the nitrogen and phosphorus that plague the bay.
These nutrients stimulate too much algae to grow. Bacteria that eat the algae suck so much oxygen out of parts of the bay that fish and creatures have to swim away to survive. The algae and sediments in the runoff also make the water murky, killing underwater grasses that provide safe nurseries for the bay's famous crabs and many fish.
Many people, like Croft, are unaware that their ordinary activities have this harmful effect.
On a crisp fall day, Croft is trying to make sense of the directions on a bag of fertilizer.
"That's not very clear," she says as she fills a fertilizer applicator. "So I'm going to have to sort of just wing it. I'll just put a bunch in there, and I'll go back and forth over it a couple of times, and I'll just call it a day."
Croft knows the bay is polluted. She used to teach fourth-grade history in Maryland, and spent about two weeks each year focusing on the Chesapeake. Still, she didn't think she could be part of the problem.
"I guess I don't think about where the water runoff goes in the city," she says.
Raw Sewage And Fertilizer-Spiked Stormwater
Dottie Yunger thinks a lot about it — a lot.
On a rainy autumn day, Yunger is in Croft's neighborhood watching water run into a sewer.
"The stormwater that's collected from last night and through today is running down the street and into this storm drain," she says. "And if anybody has used any pesticide or fertilizer on their lawn, that gets picked up with the rainwater."
Yunger is the "river keeper" for the Anacostia River, which flows through the east side of Washington, D.C. She's the chief advocate for one of the shortest and dirtiest tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.
Two kinds of pollution are the prime culprits for robbing the bay of oxygen — nitrogen and phosphorus. Ten percent of the nitrogen and even more of the phosphorus in the Chesapeake come from fertilizers that wash off lawns and golf courses.
And fertilizer isn't the only problem.
In the District of Columbia and lots of other cities across the bay watershed, stormwater flows through the same pipes as the sewage. When it rains hard, sewage treatment plants can't handle all the volume. So they divert the stormwater and the sewage into the rivers.
"So every time it rains really hard in the district and you flush your toilet, you're flushing your toilet directly into the Anacostia," Yunger says.
It is cold and raining heavily when Yunger takes me out on the Anacostia in a small boat. As we approach the ballpark where the Washington Nationals play, Yunger remembers a conversation she once had there.
"It was after a particularly large rainstorm. And I remember something really smelled, and I turned to my husband and said, 'What stinks?' And he said, 'Your river stinks.' And he was right."
It can take as little as a quarter of an inch of rain for the local utility to release raw sewage and stormwater into the Anacostia, according to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. The district's sewer system sends about 2 billion gallons of the untreated stuff into bay tributaries each year. All together, about a fifth of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the bay come from wastewater treatment plants throughout the bay's huge watershed, which includes parts of six states and Washington, D.C.
'When It Rains, I Panic'
The Anacostia is an urban river, surrounded by asphalt, cobblestone, cement and other hard surfaces. In undeveloped areas, the earth soaks up the rain and filters the pollution. But in urban areas, there's nothing to absorb the rain or pollution.
As we motor past the Washington Navy Yard, Yunger points out a big drainage pipe funneling runoff into the river.
As we ride under bridges packed with cars, trucks and buses, Yunger explains that a lot of the water pollution comes from vehicles. They leak gasoline and oil onto roads, and the rain washes it into waterways. They also pump exhaust into the air, and when it rains, the rainwater brings the pollution into the water.
About a quarter of the nitrogen pollution in the bay comes from the air — much of it from exhaust from factories, power plants and vehicles.
Yunger says most people think rain has a cleansing effect on the environment, but she knows differently.
"I used to love a rainy day. Now when it rains, I panic. Because I know that here in the Anacostia, if it rains very hard, that water is going to end up untreated into the river. The Anacostia is going to flow into the Potomac, and the Potomac is going to flow into the Chesapeake Bay, and we're going to be adding more pollution into the Chesapeake Bay," Yunger says.