We all have a role in keeping the Chesapeake clean

By Betsy Nicholas, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, and Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Angela Haren, Baltimore Sun Op Ed, July 4, 2019

There’s a big problem right under our feet. Last year, sewer line breaks and leaks caused hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage water to spill into local waterways, putting both human health and aquatic life at serious risk. But overflowing sewage is only part of the problem plaguing our waterways. Among other shortcomings in our infrastructure is stormwater runoff, which is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Out in the natural world, soil, grass and other plant life soak up most precipitation, leaving a very small amount to drain into nearby rivers, streams or lakes. Urban environments, though — with their office buildings, sidewalks, roads, restaurants and parking lots — can’t absorb as much rain. Such non-absorbent surfaces account for more than 45% of Baltimore City, making it more difficult for rainwater to absorb naturally into the ground here.

So, when we have snow, sleet or rain, the precipitation flows off our roofs and then through our streets and sidewalks. It mingles with litter and collects oil, pet waste, fertilizers and other harmful chemicals, including phosphorus and nitrogen, before entering the storm drains. This polluted water flows into our waterways, the Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay, and ultimately harms fish and aquatic life and contaminates drinking water.

This year, we’re experiencing these negative effects of stormwater pollution in full force, and it’s no coincidence this is coming after Baltimore’s rainiest year on record. When stormwater flows into our waterways, the excess pollutants rob the water of oxygen and can create dead zones — areas without enough oxygen to support most marine life. It shouldn’t surprise any of us that scientists are predicting that the Chesapeake Bay is on track to have its biggest dead zone in nearly a decade this summer.

So, yes, we face many challenges to protecting our waterways, and stormwater pollution is near the top of the list. But we also have many opportunities to create meaningful change.

We can all take simple, everyday actions to make a difference.

The two of us were part of the team that recently developed the Clear Choices Clean Water initiative for the Chesapeake Bay region. This initiative includes a series of simple pledges residents can make to limit harmful stormwater pollution. For instance, you could make sure to clean up your pet’s waste during your daily walk. Or, you could buy phosphorus-free fertilizer for your lawn. You could use native plants in your garden. You could monitor your storm drain at the end of the street to make sure it isn’t covered with debris that could wash into the drain. Maybe you could set aside a few hours on a Saturday morning to volunteer with a local waterkeeper or other environmental group to plant trees or clean up your local stream. Together, these small actions can make a huge difference.

Clear Choices Clean Water also includes an interactive map where residents can see other pledge-takers in their area, helping to build a sense of community and encourage folks to inspire their families, friends and neighbors to take action with them. They can also learn about their local waterkeepers, who are working to reduce pollution across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Our ultimate goal is to drive public action to improve local water quality, better connect residents to their waterways and show how individual actions can make a difference for the environment.

While we can’t control the weather, we can take these everyday actions to benefit the bay. One person cleaning up their local stream or planting native plants might seem small and insignificant, but when each of us does our part and we work together, change will happen.