ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The Chesapeake Bay is one of the country's most polluted waterways. And that is despite decades of government pledges and several billion federal dollars aimed at cleaning it up. Yesterday, we heard how agriculture contributes to the pollution. Today, the impact of cities and towns. Harmful substances flow into the Chesapeake from urban areas throughout the bay's wide watershed.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren recently spent some time with people in Washington, D.C. to understand how this city affects the bay.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: It's a crisp fall day and Anne Croft is fertilizing her tiny lawn in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood. She always does it this time of year.
ANNE CROFT: Basically, you don't it to die on you in the winter. So, if you fertilize it before winter comes, it allows the roots to get really deep in there and hang on until spring comes.
SHOGREN: She reads the bag to figure out how much to use.
CROFT: Let's see - apply 1.5 pounds of two to four deep per acre per application. That's not very clear. So, I'm going to have to sort of just wing it. I'll just put a bunch in there and I will just probably back and forth over it a couple of times and then I'll just call it a day.
SHOGREN: Croft knows the bay is polluted. She used to teach fourth grade in Maryland and spent about two weeks each year focusing on the Chesapeake. Still, she didn't think she could be part of the problem.
CROFT: I guess I don't think about where the water runoff goes in the city.
SHOGREN: Dottie Yunger thinks about it a lot. On a rainy autumn day, Yunger is in Croft's neighborhood watching water run down a sewer.
DOTTIE YUNGER: The storm water that's collected from last night and through today is running down the street and into this storm drain.
SHOGREN: Yunger is what's called the river keeper for the Anacostia River, which flows through the east side of Washington, D.C. She's the chief advocate for one of the shortest and dirtiest tributaries of the Chesapeake.
YUNGER: And if anybody has used any pesticide or fertilizer on their lawn, that gets picked up with the rainwater.
SHOGREN: Two kinds of pollution are the prime culprits for robbing the bay of oxygen - nitrogen and phosphorus. Ten percent of the nitrogen and even more of the phosphorus in the Chesapeake come from fertilizers that wash off lawns and golf courses.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINES)
SHOGREN: And fertilizer isn't the only problem. As we motor down the Anacostia in a small boat, Yunger explains that in Washington, D.C. and lots of other cities across the bay watershed storm water flows through the same pipes as the sewage. When it rains hard, sewage treatment plants can't handle all the volume. So they divert the storm water and the sewage into the rivers.
YUNGER: Every time it rains really hard in the District and you flush your toilet, you're flushing your toilet directly into the Anacostia.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)
SHOGREN: It's raining heavily as we approach the ballpark where the Washington Nationals play. Yunger remembers a conversation she once had there.
YUNGER: It was after a particularly large rainstorm and I remember something just really smelled and I turned to my husband and I said, what stinks? And he said, your river stinks. And he was right.
SHOGREN: It can take as little as a quarter of an inch of rain for the local utility to release raw sewage and storm water into the Anacostia. It sends about 2 billion gallons of the untreated stuff into the bay tributaries each year. All together, about a fifth of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the bay come from wastewater treatment plants throughout the bay's huge watershed.
The Anacostia is an urban river surrounded by asphalt, cobblestone, cement and other hard surfaces. In undeveloped areas, the earth soaks up the rain and filters the pollution. But in urban areas, there's nothing to absorb the rain or pollution.
YUNGER: So, the rainwater hits a parking lot, doesn't get absorbed. It picks up oil or plastic bottles or food wrappers. And then the water either rushes directly off the land or you can see out of this pipe here off of the Navy Yard, it comes out some kind of drainage system directly into the river, untreated.
SHOGREN: About hundred yards away on the bank, we watch a pipe pumping runoff into the river. Then we approach a bridge packed with cars, trucks and buses.
YUNGER: Those cars are contributing to the pollution that's in the Anacostia and the pollution that is in the Chesapeake Bay.
SHOGREN: They leak gasoline and oil onto roads and the rain washes it into waterways. And they pump exhaust into the air. Exhaust from cars, trains and factories hangs in the air until it rains. And then pollution comes down with the rain.
YUNGER: That rain just brings the pollution directly into the water.
SHOGREN: About a quarter of the nitrogen pollution in the bay comes from the air - nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate too much algae to grow. Bacteria eat the algae. As the bacteria and algae die they suck so much oxygen out of parts of the bay that fish and other creatures have to swim away to survive. The algae in sediments in the runoff also make the water murky, killing underwater plants that provide safe nurseries for the bay's famous crabs and many fish. Yunger says most people think rain has a cleansing affect on the environment but she knows differently.
YUNGER: I used to love a rainy day. Now when it rains, I panic because I know that here in the Anacostia, if it rains very hard, that water is going to end up untreated into the river. And then the Anacostia is going to flow into the Potomac, and the Potomac is going to flow into the Chesapeake, and we're going to be adding more pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.
SHOGREN: Experts say each of the 17 million people living in the watershed play a role and the Obama administration says unless the states move aggressively to cut pollution soon, the federal government will crack down.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.