Growing up in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, it became a staple in many of the locals’ lives. From swimming at the local beaches and boating the waters to eating the delicious seafood it is known for, my love for the Bay developed from more than the fun memories. It was one of the main topics of discussion in every science class in elementary school, and an anticipated field trip. Going there we learned about the environment and community efforts to keep the Bay clean. Putting on waterproof boots and going in the stream looking for clams, oysters, and rockfish is a core memory for many of my age group. As I grew older and got busier with life, my love for the Bay was forgotten for a time. And, unfortunately, it appears that had been the case for many others. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed had become severely damaged by a process called eutrophication. Throughout my research I realized that while efforts have been made to help the Bay specifically, many other local water systems are impacted by this phenomenon. Throughout this paper I will discuss what eutrophication is, the causes, and policy recommendations.
Eutrophication is a process that has been occurring naturally and slowly for years, but as human presence has increased, the process has rapidly progressed. Eutrophication occurs as a body of water gets exposed to excess nutrients, specifically Nitrogen and Phosphorus, which creates an overproduction of algae. This overproduction of algae creates a thick layer on top of the water, called an algal bloom (pictured below). This algal bloom becomes so thick that it blocks the sunlight from entering the water, disrupting the important process of photosynthesis for the plants at the bottom of the water. Since the process of photosynthesis was disrupted, the plants are no longer able to produce oxygen for the living bacteria and organisms in the water, and all living things eventually die. If not handled early in the process, it can be near impossible to reverse the effect of Eutrophication.
Eutrophication is a natural process, but human interaction has caused an extreme progression in the process. Listed below are a few specific, human-related causes of this phenomenon.
- Point Source Pollution – “pollution from contaminants that enter a waterway from a single identifiable source like stationary locations or fixed facilities” (Conserve Energy Future, n.d.).
- Discharges from Sewage Treatment plants
- Discharges from Industrial plants
- Fish Farms
- Nonpoint Source Pollution – “pollution from widespread, including human activities with no specific identifiable point of discharge or entry into receiving watercourses” (Conserve Energy Future, n.d.).
- Nitrogen compounds leaked from fertilized agricultural lands
- Losses from atmospheric deposition
The three main sources of nutrient output are:
- Erosion and leaching from fertilized agricultural areas.
- Sewage from cities and industrial wastewater.
- Atmospheric deposition of nitrogen (from animal breeding and combustion gases).
Point source pollution is the ‘direct’ type of pollution. Wastewater, whether it comes from the home or industries, schools, or individual companies, contributes highly to eutrophication. Improper disposal of human sewage and industries such as “pulp and paper mills, food and meat processing, agro-industries, and direct discharge of sewage from maritime vessels are some of the larger sources of industrial nutrient pollution” (WRI, n.d.). The everyday household also significantly contributes to America’s eutrophication systems. A study on a detergents effect on eutrophication found “out of 36 detergents studied, certain detergents effectively promoted the growth of duckweeds even in low concentration” (Ansari, 2014). As well as detergents, septic systems have a large influence on eutrophication as well. Septic systems are designed to clean waste by pushing it through the soil. “They leach, on average, 14 kilograms of nitrogen per system per year—much of which reaches groundwater or nearby surface waters” (Ann Arundel County Maryland DPW 2008). Fish farming, or aquaculture, is another growing source of point source pollution. “These farms generate concentrated amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from excrement, uneaten food, and other organic waste. If improperly managed, aquaculture operations can have severe impacts on aquatic ecosystems as nutrient wastes are discharged directly into the surrounding waters. For every ton of fish, aquaculture operations produce between 42 and 66 kilograms of nitrogen waste and between 7.2 and 10.5 kilograms of phosphorus waste” (Strain and Hargrave 2005).
Nonpoint source pollution is the ‘indirect’ type of pollution. While ‘indirect’ may suggest a lesser effect, it makes up 2/3rds of the three main sources for nutrient output. As agriculture is one of the biggest industries in America, it makes sense that they’d do everything they can to maintain production of good crops. A huge part of that is fertilizers. They can do incredible things for soil and food production, but it can be very harmful to surrounding waters. When crops are watered or rainfall occurs, runoff can carry this nutrient rich fertilizer to the body of water, creating an excess and beginning or continuing the process of eutrophication. Atmospheric deposition, the second main non point source for nutrient output, is slightly more complicated. When things like fossil fuels are burned, they release nitrogen oxides into the air. These nitrogen oxides are then redeposited to land and water through rain and snow. Again, creating an excess and beginning or continuing the process of eutrophication.
While it seems like many of these sources are uncontrollable, there are several things policymakers can do in order to lower the effects. Keeping these causes in mind, below are policy recommendations to combat the issue.
Listed below are policy recommendations that have a strong influence from the World Resources Institute, or WRI. Policies will be defined and will show examples of similar policies if applicable.
- Raising Awareness
- In order to solve a problem, the problem needs to be known. As eutrophication is such a large issue in America, the lack of public knowledge is unsettling. Education should always be the first step, as educating allows someone to learn and correct their actions for themselves. Education in schools is extremely beneficial. While teaching youth about these processes and getting them involved young creates a new generation of people who will protect these waters, it also creates an opportunity for parents to learn about this process through their kids. Education shouldn’t be stopped at the school level, and should be extended to those who contribute heavily – as in people in the farming industry, aquaculture, and wastewater disposal.
- A past policy made to educate schools about water quality is “the Baltic Sea Project [which] includes an association of over 200 schools that have pledged to combine environmental education focused on the Baltic Sea with intercultural learning” (Selman & Greenhalgh, 2018). A past policy made to educate the public is “Japan carried out various public awareness campaigns to emphasize the importance of water quality. For example, September 10 of each year was named Sewage Day and October 1 was named the Promotion Day for Combined Household Wastewater Treatment Facilities” (Selman & Greenhalgh, 2018).
- Implementing Research and Monitoring Programs
- “Research, monitoring, and evaluation activities are essential for characterizing the nature of the eutrophication problem, providing information and support tools to inform policies, and establishing effective measures for managing and reducing nutrient losses” (Selman & Greenhalgh, 2018). Once Eutrophication has begun, it’s extremely hard to reverse. So researching areas where there is risk for eutrophication is key. Not only does water quality itself need to be researched, but finding data on different processes and technologies needs to as well. This side of research could eventually find a solution for eutrophication, rather than continuing to maintain or reverse it.
- A past policy implementing research and monitoring programs was when “organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Program (Chesapeake Bay, U.S.), LUMCON (Gulf of Mexico, U.S.), and Environment Wiakato (Lake Taupo, NZ) coordinate ongoing water quality monitoring efforts for their respective jurisdictions” (Selman & Greenhalgh, 2018).
- Implementing and Enforcing Regulations
- This is the most straightforward policy to create. This policy recommendation gives guidelines to homes and industries so they know when they’re breaking the law. One regulation would be limiting the amount of algae-eating organisms that are harvested. This regulation benefits the organisms in the water as algae remains at an acceptable rate, and is especially important with the growing aquaculture industry. Another standard is regulating the amounts of nitrates and phosphates in fertilizers. Not all areas in the U.S require soil so rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. Determining these areas and regulating the fertilizers they’re allowed to use would be extremely beneficial in terms of nutrient runoff from farms. Processing standards are another regulation to lower nutrient loss. Setting “standards for developers that require new developments to manage stormwater runoff and use design practices with low environmental impact” helps specifically with nutrient loss through runoff (Selman & Greenhalgh, 2018).
- A past policy on implementing and enforcing regulations is when “the European Union (EU) Nitrate Directive requires that areas designated as Sensitive Farming Areas (SFAs) must not have manure application rates that exceed 170 kg/ha/yr” (Selman & Greenhalgh, 2018) and “Several countries and U.S. states have implemented legislation to ban or reduce phosphates in dish and laundry detergent” (Selman & Greenhalgh, 2018).
- Placing Incentives and Ecotax
- The final policy recommendation I will go over is placing incentives and ecotax for an individuals / companies compliance or defiance of regulations put in place. Creating and placing incentives like tax breaks can encourage people to implement environmentally friendly practices to reduce nutrient loss. Opposingly, placing taxes or fees on companies that continue their harmful practices will dissuade them from persisting. This ‘reward the good, punish the bad’ policy is a direct way to communicate with these companies and get them on board.
- A past policy about placing an ecotax is a ‘polluter-pays-tax’ created in Florida. “Florida (U.S.) has imposed an Everglades Agricultural Privilege Tax for every acre of productive land in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Landowners who maintain a minimum phosphorus concentration (50ppb) in water discharged from their land have a lower tax rate” (Selman & Greenhalgh, 2018).
Living in the Chesapeake Bay area, eutrophication is an issue close to my heart. I’ve seen the effects of it and continue to today. While the Bay thankfully has a plan to be restored, I worry for the other beautiful bodies of water that are at risk. Whether it’s a natural river or a man-made pond, all waters can be subjected to the effects of eutrophication. Eutrophication is an extremely confusing, time-sensitive problem that policymakers need to consider. The source of it can be hard to identify, and without proper research it’s difficult to determine if an area is being affected until it’s too late. This process deteriorates lakes, rivers, streams, and all other bodies of water. Not only is it an eyesore, but it creates dead zones that can be irreversible if it goes untreated too long. Not only are our beautiful bodies of water in danger, but so are the local clams, oysters, and fish we love. Following the policy suggestions listed above while keeping in mind the background of the issues and the causes along with it is key to reversing this phenomenon. Policy makers need to start this process to reverse the effects soon, or else it may be too late.
Ansari A., Khan F. (2014) Household Detergents Causing Eutrophication in Freshwater Ecosystems. In: Ansari A., Gill S. (eds) Eutrophication: Causes, Consequences and Control. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-7814-6_12
Chislock, M. F., Doster, E., Zitomer, R. A. & Wilson, A. E. (2013) Eutrophication: Causes, Consequences, and Controls in Aquatic Ecosystems. Nature Education Knowledge 4(4):10
Frequently Asked Questions: Wastewater Department: City of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. (n.d.). Retrieved December 11, 2020, from http://www.mt-pleasant.org/departments/division_of_public_works/wastewater/faq.asp
Scannone, F. (2016, November 10). What is eutrophication? Causes, effects and control. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from http://www.eniscuola.net/en/2016/11/03/what-is-eutrophication-causes-effects-and-control/