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Storm Cuts Path of Pollution: Runoff a Threat to Ecosystyems

The Washington Post, September 19, 1999, SectionA, page A3. The Full text of   the article is available at:

Poultry manure has been considered the largest source of pollution and excess nitrogen and phosphorous draining into the Chesapeake Bay. Now Hurricane Floyd has added a new chapter to this continuing story and controversy. The storm washed large amounts of pollution off of the land, largely from chicken farms, and into the rivers and creeks that feed into the bay. In a matter of days, as much pollution-laden sediment was washed into the water as would have ordinarily taken place over the course of a year.

The day after the storm deposited some nine inches of rainfall onto the area, the Choptank River, a major tributary of the Cheasapeake, flowed at 6,240 cubic feet per second, its second highest flow ever recorded. Normal flow is 34 cubic feet per second. "Let me tell you, I've never seen so much water running off the land," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science. "All of these creeks were absolutely full to the banks with turbid water. You could just see it, how much sediment was being washed off the land." The most immediate concern is the storm's impact upon seagrasses which are now buried in sediment after already suffering from a number a number of ecological threats which have thinned them.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Bay Program, in the lower bay seagrasses have receded by 63 percent since 1992. One of the threats to grasses, which are vital to the development of young fish and crabs, comes from the excess nutrients which wash into the water from surrounding farms. These nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous, overstimulate algae growth which cuts off needed light to the grasses.

The root of the problem is the poultry industry. Farmers routinely spread poultry manure on their fields as fertilizer, but due to the tremendous buildup of the industry on parts of the Eastern Shore, far more waste is being produced than the land can absorb. Soils are over saturated with nutrients. As water runs off and erodes the soil the excess nutrients wash into the water. While some scientists warn that it is far too early to measure Hurricane Floyd's net impact on the bay, Michael F. Hirshfield, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said: "What was on the land is now in the bay."

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