A stretch of the Chesapeake Bay big enough to fill 2,000 Baltimore Ravens stadiums is once again a dead zone, lacking the necessary oxygen that fish, crabs, and shellfish need to survive. While the state of Maryland is working to reduce the pollution that makes the water uninhabitable, some argue other states should share more of the cost and effort. Kojo explores the Chesapeake dead zone and what’s being done to shrink it.


  • Tom Parham Director, Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
  • Tim Wheeler Reporter, The Baltimore Sun


  • 12:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, tennis great Arthur Ashe. His connection to the U.S. Open going on today in New York and to the civil rights and black power movements. But first, the dead zone returns to the Chesapeake. The regions iconic waterway is home to thousands of species of plants and animals, producing 500 million pounds of seafood every year.

  • 12:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut each year, warmer temperatures and pollution set off a chain of events, creating dangerously low oxygen levels in a large area of water in the bay. This year, the stretch of dead water is at one of its highest levels yet, forcing fish, crab and oysters to move elsewhere if they want to survive. State and federal governments are spending billions to try to clean the bay, in an effort to keep a fragile ecosystem alive and to ensure we have a use for all that old bay seasoning.

  • 12:07:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me now to discuss the Chesapeake dead zone is Tom Parham. He is Director of the Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Tom Parham, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:00

    MR. TOM PARHAMHello. Hello, Kojo.

  • 12:08:01

    NNAMDITom Parham joins us in studio. Joining us by phone is Tim Wheeler. He is a reporter covering the environment and the Chesapeake Bay for the Baltimore Sun. Tim, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:11

    MR. TIM WHEELERGlad to be here, Kojo.

  • 12:08:12

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, if you have questions or comments, how important is cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay to you? How aggressive should the government be in reducing pollution there? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Tom, this isn't the first time we've seen a dead zone in the bay. Every year, when it gets warm, it seems to come back. What's happening in the water that's creating this dead environment? And give us a sense of scale for how big it is.

  • 12:08:51

    PARHAMSure. Well, the Chesapeake Bay is quite large. It's about 200 miles long from the Susquehanna down to the mouth of Virginia. I mean, to the bay, where the ocean comes in out of Virginia. The dead zone area is pretty much from the bay bridge down a little bit below the Maryland/Virginia state line. That's the deepest water in the bay and that's typically where you have low oxygen. What happens is the Chesapeake Bay will -- has a very large watershed. That means whenever it rains, all the water's gonna run across the land and make its way into the bay.

  • 12:09:25

    PARHAMAs it does that, it picks up, picks up polluted runoff in the form of nutrients and sediment that make their way into, into the bay. This nutrients are like food for algae. And algae are small microscopic plants that can grow very, very quickly once they have this excess food. When there is -- when the -- like all plants, they produce oxygen during the day, and at night, they consume oxygen. So when you have lots and lots of algae, what happens is at night, it ends up using a lot of its oxygen.

  • 12:10:00

    PARHAMWhen these algae die, they settle down into this, into the deeper waters of the bay, kind of the dead zone area. And what happens is, as they decompose, they use up even more oxygen. So areas in the -- like, the Chesapeake Bay is a -- what typically happens is fresh water, as it comes down the rivers and streams, gets more buoyant than the denser saltwater that's making its way up from the ocean. So what happens is there's not lots of mixing, so this dead zone area has lots of algae decomposing. And there's not a lot of chances for oxygen to get mixed down into this area.

  • 12:10:35

    NNAMDIIn terms of the effect on marine life, do we know if this is killing the fish in the zone, or is it just forcing them to move somewhere else?

  • 12:10:46

    PARHAMWell, when they talk about dead zone, they talk about oxygen levels that are kind of below two milligrams per liter, which is pretty low. In the deepest parts of the bay, there is zero oxygen. So if you are a clam or an oyster or something that can't move...

  • 12:11:03

    NNAMDIMussels, yeah.

  • 12:11:04

    PARHAM...yeah. You're in deep trouble. If you are a fish or a crab, what happens is you would move away from those areas. So what happens is any long living organisms that live -- that could live in the dead zone area, they just, they all die. So you end up having lots of real short lived organisms like worms that live in that part of the bay.

  • 12:11:27

    NNAMDIAnd even for the fish that move away, it's my understanding that movement itself tends to limit their tendencies to procreate.

  • 12:11:35

    PARHAMIt's very difficult, because if you look at the volume, like, in Maryland itself. When we have our -- you know, summertime, when you have the -- when the dead zone is the most pronounced. About 25 to 30 percent of the water has oxygen that's too low for, you know, fish, crabs, and shellfish to live. So if you're a fish in that area, you need to move out. Lots of times, fish also deal with, in the summertime, the water temperatures get really, really warm.

  • 12:12:01

    PARHAMAnd for instance, if you're a striped bass, the surface water temperatures are too warm, so you can't really go up shallow. And if you go down to deep, there's not enough oxygen. So it's very difficult for the fish, and they tend to end up getting packed into little areas.

  • 12:12:16

    NNAMDITim Wheeler, we have an overgrowth of algae in the bay. It's sucking oxygen out of the water, because fish need oxygen too. The dead zone is putting pressure on them. At the same time, this happens every year, and most of us really haven't noticed a difference in our lives. Why does therefore the dead zone matter? And who does it affect?

  • 12:12:36

    WHEELERWell, if you like to fish, if you like to eat fish and crabs, it can be an influence there. I mean, I was just looking on the Maryland Department Environment website. They track fish kills there, and I would say, a little less than 30 percent of the fish kills that they recorded in 2012 were attributed to low dissolved oxygen. So, it can kill fish. It doesn't just happen in the deepest part of the bay either. It can affect shallow areas without coves and that sort of thing at times, too.

  • 12:13:08

    WHEELERSo, you know, it impacts the, you know, the fish and the crabs and the oysters that we enjoy eating and catching. And, you know, and it just generally contributes to a poor ecosystem health that we have.

  • 12:13:27


  • 12:13:27

    PARHAMWell, another thing, also, is the Chesapeake Bay is a big driver of the economy. You have the seafood industry, like in Maryland and Virginia, that last, from a 2009 report, had three billion dollars in sales. And of course, that cascades all throughout the watershed. So, when you have a cleaner bay, you have a more thriving economy. They know that it's easier -- it's cheaper and more cost effective, actually, to keep a bay clean than it is to restore it. But when you go through activities to bring it back up to where it should be, it creates a lot of jobs and it's great for the economy.

  • 12:14:04

    NNAMDIIn case you're just -- go ahead, Tim Wheeler.

  • 12:14:06

    WHEELERI'm sorry. I mean, to sort of expand on what I said before. It's -- the -- you know, all these things are connected. Generally, when you have these large algae blooms, there also is -- it's harder for the bay grasses to grow. And with that, you have maybe fewer waterfowl, ducks and geese out there. Fewer other animals and critters that feed on the fish also. So it does even extend even on to the land based and the bird life.

  • 12:14:33

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, that's the voice of Tim Wheeler. We're discussing the Chesapeake Bay dead zone. Tim Wheeler is a reporter covering the environment and the Chesapeake Bay for the Baltimore Sun. Joining us in studio is Tom Parham, director of Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. How would a larger dead zone for fish, crab and other shellfish affect your life? 800-433-8850. Here' is Carrie in Annapolis, Maryland. Carrie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:09

    CARRIEHey Kojo. Big fan. My question, and partially comment, is I am in a community at the end of the South River and about last year it was announced on this station actually that the bacterial level in my community beach was deemed unsafe to being too high. And I was wondering what that -- if it's caused by the dead zone and what measures can be taken to reverse the process.

  • 12:15:43

    NNAMDITom Parham.

  • 12:15:44

    PARHAMWell, lots of times, the high bacterial levels can be caused by a lot of different things. Some communities, you know, as I mentioned before, when it rains, as the rain runs across the land, it picks up what's ever there on that and it brings it into the water. So if you have an area that is -- where you have a storm water system that gets overflowed, that will go in there and that can contribute bacteria. But also, in some areas where you have large amounts of wildlife, like deer and raccoons, all the waste from them gets washed off and you'll also have high levels of bacteria also.

  • 12:16:18

    NNAMDIThere's an...

  • 12:16:19

    WHEELERThere's also a, Kojo...

  • 12:16:20

    NNAMDI...sure, Tim.

  • 12:16:21

    WHEELER... (word?) County, in particular, has a significant number of homes on septic tanks.

  • 12:16:26

    PARHAMThat's correct.

  • 12:16:26

    WHEELERAnd those tend to leak nutrients. They don't generally leak bacteria, but the ones that aren't functioning properly could. And that also could be contributing to it.

  • 12:16:36

    NNAMDITom, there's an effort going on to clean up the bay, to reduce the amount of pollution that feeds the algae, which in turn, takes up all this oxygen in this water. Cleaning up such a large body of water, it seems to be rather complicated and estimates say it will cost around 14 billion dollars. What exactly is being done to reduce pollution in the bay?

  • 12:16:55

    PARHAMWell, there's a lot of different things that are being done. One of the important things to remember is I'm sure people have seen these agreements that have gone -- there was, back in 1983, 1987 and 2000. And they were trying to clean up the bay with a lot of these voluntary efforts. This is a little bit different now. This is one that I have confidence that will work, because we have all states that are working together as full partners. But it's, by working with EPA, we had worked throughout the whole bay and we figured out how much nutrients we have to reduce in order to meet -- bring up the water quality levels to a certain standard that will ultimately provide more oxygen for fish and crabs and shellfish.

  • 12:17:37

    PARHAMAnd clear water for underwater grasses. So, what's happening is, once we know within the whole watershed how much nutrient pollution we have to reduce, we've broken that down into the different states and then also smaller jurisdictions. They're -- in order to do that, it depends on the area, what sort of actions that can be done. But working with EPA, we have found that the local jurisdictions can determine what activities they need to do to reduce nutrients. If you're an area that has lots of agriculture, those would be probably the areas that you'd focus on.

  • 12:18:10

    PARHAMIf you're in an area like Washington, D.C., you would focus on waste water treatment, like Blue Plains. And if you're in between, in some of these different areas, it's a little of this, a little of that. Some areas, it will be storm water. Some areas, you'd work on some other things. So there's lots of different activities that can be done. And what happens is they broke it down below a state level is all these different jurisdictions came up with plans for us -- for them to make their mixture. They reduce enough nutrients and they track it.

  • 12:18:40

    PARHAMAnd every two years, they get checked on their progress. So, if they don't make it, there are consequences. So it's not just we'll make a promise and then we'll worry about it 10 years from now. And there'll be no consequences. This has consequences.

  • 12:18:54

    NNAMDITim Wheeler, Tom talks about all states working together in what seems to be an admirable, cooperative effort, but a lot of people fear that way too much responsibility for keeping the bay clean falls on Maryland and it shouldn't. What's their argument?

  • 12:19:10

    WHEELERWell, their argument is that Maryland's a relatively small part of the bay watershed. And that there's a lot more, you know, beyond Maryland's borders and that, primarily, the focus is on Susquehanna River. And the states upriver of Maryland. The Susquehanna is the bay's largest tributary at the top of the bay. And it flows down from as far north as Cooperstown, New York to the bay. And it drains all that areas there. And roughly 50 percent of the freshwater coming into the bay comes from the Susquehanna River alone.

  • 12:19:50

    WHEELERAnd with that comes, as you can imagine, an awful lot of those nutrients. Nitrogen and Phosphorous and sediment. There's a great deal of concern, these days, in some corners, about that. And some folks contend that the states north of us aren't doing their share.

  • 12:20:07

    NNAMDIPennsylvania and New York?

  • 12:20:08

    WHEELERYeah. And that the -- there's also this issue around the dams on the river, on the lower part of the river, the Conowingo Dam in particular, which is in Maryland, but it's just close to the Maryland with Pennsylvania. And there's been a large buildup of sediment behind that, which is laden with phosphorous, one of the two nutrients that's responsible for the algae blooms. So there's concern that that, especially during times when we have really big storms, tropical storm caliber or nor'easter at least, can pump an extra dose of the nasty nutrients and sediment into the bay. And we've seen a recent example of that, what, two years, three years ago, with Tropical Storm Lee.

  • 12:20:56

    NNAMDITom Parham, Pennsylvania, New York, how much are they doing?

  • 12:20:58

    PARHAMWell, like I mentioned, throughout the watershed all the Bay States have these two-year milestones. So they have a whole series of activities they have to meet, as well as Maryland. I mean, Maryland, as Tim mentioned, you know, we have -- the bulk of the shoreline is in Maryland itself. But one of these things we know from looking at the whole watershed and how the nutrients of the polluted runoff makes its way into the bay, you know, it's moving down all these small streams to bigger streams, to bigger rivers, and making it that way.

  • 12:21:25

    PARHAMWe know that actions on the land, in some cases, nutrients that are coming in closer to the bay have more impact on bay conditions than nutrients farther away, in some cases. We know this from having a world-class water quality and watershed model to determine this. So even though those states have large portions of the watershed, it's certainly important for Maryland to do their part also.

  • 12:21:55

    WHEELERAnd Kojo, I should point out a couple of things here, that there have been measured reductions in nitrogen, and to a lesser degree of phosphorous, in the Susquehanna. These are measurements by the U.S. Geological Survey and the river itself over the last 30 years. So there is some evidence that there has been some reduction there. The other point that's been made to me is that, you know, we just had a big storm here just a couple weeks ago, over six inches of rain, roughly about the time that this dead zone, you know, took off again after being the smallest on record in July and grew back to above-normal size. And the influence of the Susquehanna on that was no greater than normal. I mean, it was not the source of the major part of that runoff.

  • 12:22:44

    NNAMDIHere's Paul in Edgewater, Maryland. Paul, your turn.

  • 12:22:48

    PAULKojo, I just love your show, but I have a minor suggestion here. Let's focus on the political solutions. We completely understand, completely understand the tactical problems and solutions here. You just mentioned about sewage runoff. Let's talk about what needs to be done. We have the world's most advanced sewage treatment plant at Blue Plains. Yet when there's a heavy storm event in the nation's capital, we have a combined store overflow, and the first few hours or few inches of that rain, enormous amounts of runoff just runs right off into the Anacostia and into the Potomac.

  • 12:23:31

    PAULI have an extensive background in this. I live on the bay, I work on the bay, and I swim on the bay almost every day. I care deeply about it. It's silly to discuss why a dead zone is a concern. If you can imagine, if there were a dead zone over the city of Washington, well, some people jokingly say there is at Congress, but imagine there were no oxygen, all the oxygen were sucked out of the atmosphere over the city of Washington. We'd all either drop dead, or we'd have to run into Virginia and Maryland to breathe, and the city would die.

  • 12:24:05

    PAULWell, some people might think that's a good thing, but the point is we don't need to discuss this ad infinitum. Every time we've made progress, Kojo, it's from thou shalt -- thou shalt not catch rockfish. Thou shall not use DDT. Thou shall clean up phosphates and detergents, et cetera, et cetera.

  • 12:24:26


  • 12:24:28

    PAULYet so much of what we do is voluntary. It doesn't work.

  • 12:24:31

    NNAMDIOkay, allow me to -- allow someone else who wants to make a similar point to participate in this conversation. Here is Scott in Chestertown, Maryland. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:24:44

    SCOTTYes, hi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call, love the show, as well. Yeah, I just want to echo what Paul is saying. I mean, it seems like -- and to give you some context, I'm around 30 years old. So I haven't been around the bay too long, but I have been, you know, living and working on it my entire life. And even in that short window, I've definitely seen, you know, a big change. And, you know, it seems like, from talking to people who have been around a little bit longer, there's, you know, a lot of finger-pointing.

  • 12:25:11

    SCOTTYou know, some people say it's the Conowingo Dam and the Susquehanna runoff. Other people say, well, it's the commercial farming and the chicken farming on the eastern shore. Other people will say it's, you know, urban runoff from the D.C.-Baltimore corridor. And, you know, watermen say it's, you know, due to Mother Nature, and it's just cyclical. So -- and then you have people blaming the watermen, too, for over-fishing and whatnot. So it just seems like, you know, to echo Paul's point, there's a lot of...

  • 12:25:35

    NNAMDINobody wants to take personal responsibility is what you seem to be saying.

  • 12:25:37

    SCOTTBasically, basically. And where is the political will, whether it be at the state level with state measures or federal, you know, that's what Tim was saying, between Maryland, New York and Virginia and, you know, Pennsylvania, as well?

  • 12:25:47

    NNAMDIOkay, here's Tom Parham.

  • 12:25:49

    PARHAMAll right, no, I appreciate those questions, and we always need good dialogue to keep these things moving forward. First of all, those early agreements were voluntary. This one is non-voluntary. We've been doing, we've been tracking these two-year milestones since 2007. So the first one, 2007 through 2009, 2009 through '11 and '13, we've made all our targets. So what's going on is every two years or so, we have -- through these plans, these watershed plans, we have actions that need to be done.

  • 12:26:16

    PARHAMAnd by 2025 we'll have all the actions in place to have a restored bay at some point after that. Some of these actions, there'll be lag times due to nutrients having to soak through groundwater and make their way to the rivers, but they are working. Tim mentioned earlier about some of the USGS work, showing that up in the watershed, we have up to 70 percent of our stations are showing reductions in nitrogen, which is one of the nutrients that's fueling these algae blooms and causing the low dissolved oxygen.

  • 12:26:50

    PARHAMThe -- when we look at -- our group works on the tidal, and I work with a group that also does the non-tidal monitoring of the bay. So we track the progress. So we do all these things on land, but ultimately it's whether we have enough oxygen, based our monitoring that happens, you know, every -- you know, twice a month or monthly throughout, you know, throughout the bay. And what's happening is our trends are showing there are improvements, and we're seeing in the non-tidal, in the tidal fresh area, haven't got to the main part of the bay, but things are happening.

  • 12:27:19

    PARHAMSo these things are not voluntary. We have plans, they're working, and even though we're only through 2013, you know, 2014, we have a ways to go, and it's going to get harder, but we're on track.

  • 12:27:29

    NNAMDITim, we're running out of time, but another concern is the Environmental Protection Agency's role in the cleanup. The EPA has gotten involved by setting maximum levels of pollution. They've even gotten a specific -- setting a restriction for each type of nutrient. What do people see as the problem with that?

  • 12:27:48

    WHEELERWell, there is a legal challenge that's, you know, wending its way through the federal courts. It's at the appellate level now. The Farm Bureau in particular objects. And other states object, actually, to EPA's taking a stronger regulatory role in the bay cleanup. Tom is right, there's a -- there is a hammer here, and if the states fall short of doing what they are supposed to do, there can be consequences. EPA can block permits for new projects, can prevent expansion, can prevent growth. They can do a number of things to limit a state's control over its own economy and things that would add to the problem.

  • 12:28:31

    WHEELERThere will be a test one day. Right now, one of the states, Pennsylvania, the EPA actually, you know, cited them in the most recent review of those two-year-milestones for not having quite come up to the bar. So the question is will they be able to get Pennsylvania to move forward, or will there have to be some consequence. So there could be some issue there.

  • 12:28:50

    WHEELERBut the farmers and others find it objectionable to have anybody tell them what to do with their land. They believe that they're good water stewards. The data show that agriculture, however, is still the largest source of nutrients and sediment getting into the bay. And there in fact parts of the watershed that are agriculturally dominated, such as the Maryland eastern shore, where phosphorous, another one of the nutrients, is not coming down. In fact, it's going the opposite direction.

  • 12:29:21

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Tim Wheeler is a report covering the environment and the Chesapeake Bay for the Baltimore Sun. Tim, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:29:28

    WHEELERThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:29:30

    NNAMDITom Parham is director of Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Tom, obviously this isn't over. I look forward to our next conversation with you to see whether any progress has been made.

  • 12:29:42

    PARHAMThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:29:43

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, tennis great Arthur Ashe, his connection to the U.S. Open going on today in New York, his connection to the civil rights and the black power movements. There's a new book out about it. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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