After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Persistence, Patience and Bay Restoration

Posted by Walter Boynton.

This blog starts with a little story and the little story might be more interesting than the blog. But, the blog and story are related.

I have a sister…one of many…who I fondly refer to as “my lunatic sister.” There are many good reasons for this name but one of them is that she lived in a Mongolian Yurt (a round sort of tent that she made) for many years. Perhaps this would be reasonable in Maryland but she lives in Jackson, Wyoming, and it gets a bit chilly during winter, big minus numbers are the norm and winter lasts for about 11 months. So, when the lunatic comes home from her job the yurt is at the same temperature as the Wyoming great outdoors…generally minus something. So, she starts a fire in a wood stove and, as she tells the story, in about 15 minutes the inside temperature has risen to about zero. A few more pieces of wood and another 15 minutes and the freezing mark is achieved and the heavy parka comes off. A few final hunks of wood go into the stove, another 15 minute wait, and its home sweet (and warm) home.

So, what’s this got to do with Bay restoration efforts? Actually, quite a bit and it’s not one of the easier parts of Bay restoration. It now appears that in some cases management has done the right thing and also done enough of the right thing. The example I’m thinking of is Gunston Cove, a small tributary of the Potomac about 15 miles south of Washington, D.C. The right thing here was to make very large reductions in phosphorus coming from a Virginia wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). This was accomplished but water quality remained poor: algal blooms remained intense, dissolved oxygen levels and water clarity remained low and seagrasses continued their long absence in this system. So, what gives? Work done by Professor Chris Jones and colleagues at George Mason University unraveled this mystery and, as is often the case, the answer seems simple once it’s known. This cove had been subjected to large nutrient loads for many decades. The sediments in this shallow estuary became super enriched with phosphorus. When the WWTP cleaned up the act, phosphorus inputs sharply decreased. But, there was plenty of phosphorus in the cove sediments to keep water quality and habitat conditions poor for years. As Chris Jones found, about seven or eight years after the WWTP loads decreased, cove water quality began to improve. First, the phosphorus levels decreased and then water clarity began to improve and algal blooms decreased. Finally, seagrasses began to re-invade this system and water quality improved even more.

So, my lunatic sister “did the right thing” by starting a fire and the Virginia folks did the right thing by cleaning up the WWTP. Both kept at it with my sister adding wood to the stove and the WWTP by making big phosphorus load reductions. Finally, in both cases they had to wait for the desired outcome. So, with patience and persistence the lunatic had a warm tent and Gunston Cove started down the path of water quality and habitat restoration. The lessons here are that successful Bay restoration will need big and bold efforts…something we have not done anywhere near enough of … and we will need to keep at it … be persistent! And, in many cases, instant gratification will not occur. We will need to wait for the right things to happen …. sometimes for years.

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