Drive east from Washington and eventually you run smack into the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, the massive estuary that stretches from the mouth of the Susquehanna River at Maryland’s northern tip and empties into the Atlantic 200 miles away near Norfolk, Va.
Decades of runoff from grassy suburban yards and farm fields as far north as New York state, plus sewage and other waste dumped by the hundreds of gallons, made the Chesapeake so dirty that by 1983, the crab population had plummeted to just 2 percent of what Capt. John Smith saw when he explored the bay in the 1600s.
For years, people tried to clean it up. States and the federal government spent millions of dollars. The first effort began in 1983 — officially launched by President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union Address.
And each time, the cleanup efforts failed. The bay’s health wasn’t getting much better.
By 2009, when the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to get the EPA to do more to clean up the bay, the Chesapeake’s dead zone was so big it often covered a cubic mile in the summer.
Dead zones form when the water becomes too concentrated with nitrogen and phosphorus — allowing algal blooms to grow and block out sunlight from reaching beneath the water and causing populations of fish and crabs to plummet.
Then, last summer, scientists recorded no dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay. And wildlife was returning, too. The EPA’s new plan seemed to be working.
“When I first heard that spawning sturgeon were back in the bay, my reaction was, ‘Yes! We can get this done,’” says Will Baker, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s president. “It’s really exciting. You give nature half a chance and she will produce every single time.”
Photo: Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR