How Did Our Environment Get in This Mess?
It only took a little more than a generation for suburban development to compromise the health of our watersheds.
Every day I hear or read some more bad news concerning the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Dead zones with no oxygen to support life, sediment clouded water killing submerged aquatic vegetation, fertilizer runoff causing destructive algae blooms that rob the water of oxygen, and declining oyster and crab populations have all been in the news frequently in recent years.
It seems that in our efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, we end up taking two steps forward and three steps back. The situation is frustrating to say the least—and yet, we cannot give up trying to reverse the ill effects that our day-to-day living has brought upon the bay.
Growing up here in Severna Park, I remember seeing my toes while in chest deep water, finding soft crabs in grass beds and seeing skipjacks dredge for oysters. However, in my lifetime, these scenes are now just memories in all but a few areas of the bay.
What caused these once commonplace sights and experiences to disappear?
Development of land in the watershed is the chief culprit. Unfortunately, there was not a template for the type of suburban development that this area experienced in the decades following World War II.
New roads were built, gasoline was much less expensive, people began buying one or more cars for their growing families and many folks wanted to live the new version of the American dream in a three-bedroom, bath-and-a-half home in the suburbs.
Who could blame people for taking advantage of the opportunity to get out of the noisy, congested cities and, for the first time, buy their own home in the brand new suburbs? As wonderful as this lifestyle change was, there was also a downside to all the new development that would become evident as time progressed.
As development increased, so did the amount of paved surfaces as roads were improved, parking lots constructed, and sidewalks and driveways were built in our communities.
To drain all the newly paved areas, storm drains were installed to direct water from these surfaces into nearby creeks and rivers so that standing water would not be a problem. As the numerous residential and commercial construction sites rains would often wash exposed soil into storm drains or directly into nearby bodies of water where the water would turn muddy from the sediment until it settled to the bottom.
However, during the '50s and '60s, the impact from the development boom did not seem to adversely affect the health of our creeks, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
We now know that all the development in our area did have serious consequences upon the environmental health of our watersheds. Sediment-clouded water prevented adequate sunlight from reaching the once plentiful submerged aquatic vegetation.
As the grass beds disappeared, young fish and crabs had fewer places to develop in size. Oxygen levels in the water declined as dangerous algae blooms were fueled by runoff containing excessive nutrients. Disease and poor water quality caused the demise of the once plentiful oyster population which helped filter the water in the Chesapeake Bay.
While this scenario is grim, there is hope that these trends can be reversed. People are becoming more conscious of their individual and collective impact upon our watersheds. Better stormwater management practices have been developed to reduce stormwater runoff and municipal sewer systems are gradually replacing septic systems as a means to treat wastewater.
It is worth noting that many of the current water quality problems occurred in the span of 60 years. Each of us needs to examine the consequences of how our lifestyles impact the quality of the water around us and continue to learn from our past mistakes. Perhaps sometime within the next decade (or decades), folks will once again be able to wade in chest-deep water and clearly see their feet in our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.