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Drought's Impact on the Chesapeake Bay

DroughtmapThe near-record drought that is hammering the Midwest and West this summer is also causing moderate drought conditions for farmers in parts of Maryland and Virginia, while much of Pennsylvania is experiencing relatively normal amounts of rainfall, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
You can check out this online map to see which sections of the Chesapeake Bay watershed -– including parts of Southern Maryland and  the Eastern Shore -- are parched. Nationally, about 55 percent of the lower 48 states are experiencing moderate to extreme drought, according to NOAA. 

DustbowlLast week, the Agriculture Department declared more than 1,000 counties in 26 states as natural-disaster areas, The Washington Post reports.  It’s been more than a half century since a drought this extensive has hit the U.S., breaking records back to 1958, although the dry weather still does not compare to the dust bowl conditions of the 1930’s (as shown in the NOAA image at right).

Interestingly, however, conditions that are hard on farms, gardens, and lawns are not necessarily bad for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. The lack of rainfall this year has meant less water flushing over suburban parking lots, urban streets, and farm fields, washing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution into streams that lead to the Bay.

Bruce Michael, Director of the Resource Assessment Service for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, told the Post (link) that the low-oxygen “dead zone” in the Chesapeake Bay this summer so far is “absolutely much smaller” than it was at this time last summer.  About 12 percent of water volume in Maryland’s portion of the Bay was low in oxygen in June, compared with more than 30 percent last year, according to the report.

Of course, we can’t control the rain.  Average citizens and clean water advocates, however, do have power over the fertilizer we spread (or decide not to spread) on our lawns and gardens. And, more importantly, we can help influence our local governments to invest in stormwater control systems to reduce runoff pollution.

At dry times like this, we should always keep the next big rain storms in mind.  And we should keep the heat on our elected representatives to invest in improved stormwater control systems for urban areas and runoff control programs for farms.  We shouldn’t wait for a rainy day.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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As I posted on our Twitter account (@eyesonthebay) earlier today:

"Lack of rain does not 'clean up' the Bay in the long-term. OUR ACTIONS & MGMT to reduce sediment & nutrients cleans the Bay."

We'll be releasing an updated story on overall anoxic/hypoxic volume observed last week by our Maryland DNR monitoring.

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