Source: FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters
FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters
For more resources from this report go to FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters.
More than three decades after the Clean Water Act, iconic American waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound are in perilous condition and facing new sources of contamination. In this special collection of educational resources from FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters, correspondent Hedrick Smith investigates the growing hazards to our waterways and emerging threats to human health.
Poisoned Waters Discussion Guide (Document)
Why Are America’s Waterways in Peril?
The Chesapeake Bay, an iconic waterway lying near the cradle of the nation, was an early target of the Environment Protection Agency for a broad clean-up. An army of scientists have studied and scrutinized the Bay. In 1983, six state governors signed a compact with former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus, vowing to cut the Bay’s most harmful pollution by 40% by the year 2000. It was to be a model for America.
But those were voluntary targets without the force of law. Governors came and went. Twice since then, those targets have been watered down and postponed – to 2010 and then, 2025, and the Bay has suffered the consequences.
“Today we’re at a point at which this system called the Chesapeake Bay may be on the verge of ceasing to function in its most basic capacities,” asserts Will Baker, President of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “All of those functions that we value could be lost to the next generation, unless we take dramatic and fundamental action today.”
The symptoms of decline are everywhere. Oysters are a mere two percent of historic levels. Crab catches are only one-third of a decade ago. No longer are there shad, yellow perch, or tarpon, complains commercial fisherman Larry Simns. Thousands of jobs have been lost. Old fishing towns have decayed. Billions of dollars of business have disappeared.
The Bay is acutely vulnerable to the human footprint. It is the receptacle for an enormous, heavily populated watershed that stretches from Upper New York State to southern Virginia. It is an ecological hothouse, a shallow body with 11,000 miles of shoreline, that absorbs the runoff from the sprawl of cities and suburbs across the entire mid-Atlantic region, and also from huge cattle farms in Pennsylvania and from industrial-scale chicken farms in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
It is contaminated by agricultural runoff –manure and fertilizer loaded with too much nitrogen and phosphorous, runoff that spawns acres of algae and fuels the spread of dead zones where aquatic life cannot survive. In the heat of summer, dead zones devoid of oxygen and as barren as the moon, occupy 40 percent of the main stem of the Chesapeake. They are, moreover, a global problem, doubling in size worldwide every decade.
Efforts to curb pollution from farming and economic development have run into fierce opposition. Cities have fallen behind in upgrading sewage treatment plants. Regulators lack sufficient funds and authority to crack down on polluters.
Some question whether political leaders - or the public – cares enough to take strong action. “We know today precisely what is necessary to save the Chesapeake,” asserts EPA strategist Chuck Fox. “It comes down to the question of political will.”
Background Essay Written by Hedrick Smith.
Poisoned Waters explores why American waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and the Puget Sound are in peril. After watching the video, discuss your answers to the following questions:
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