How farming impacts the largest estuary in North America

elk river wetlands

Wetlands flow into the Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the Elk River
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America, spanning 200 miles in length with coastline from Grace, Md. to Virginia Beach, Va. Enduring centuries of pressure from surrounding communities, it is one of the most threatened waterways due to the impacts of agriculture, urban runoff, vehicle emissions and development. In 1984, strategies were put in motion with hope to restore the largest lifeline on the East Coast. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

view from the stars

View from the stars – The Chesapeake Bay & Watershed
Spanning 64,000 square miles, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed boasts over 150 major river and stream systems. During the journey to the Bay, rivers collect sediment from watershed and tidal sources caused by the natural process of erosion of nearby land and stream banks. As shown above, excess sediment collected in these systems becomes problematic, leading to blocked waterways, habitat depletion and fish species debilitation. (Photo by NASA Earth Observatory)

Excess deposits, cloudy returns
As population boomed over the centuries in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, rapid removal of forests closely followed to allow for the intensification of food production to support the growth. Deforestation to make room for farmland in the nineteenth century created thousands of acres of exposed land prone to erosion. In an average year, over 5.2 million tons of sediment is deposited into the Chesapeake Bay with 60 percent attributed to agriculture. Without forests to buffer and prevent erosion in farming regions, the Bay receives the highest percentage of sediment and nutrient pollution from these areas. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Satellite view of the Susquehanna river and surrounding farms
  With a third of the land in agricultural production, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is home to over 83,000 farms. While farming provides endless support for surrounding communities, it is also the single largest source of sediment and nutrient pollution contributing 42 percent of the nitrogen and 55 percent of the phosphorous entering the Bay. Along the Susquehanna River, runoff from nearby farms carries excess nutrients into the river as a consequence of poor management practices of over-irrigation, intense tillage and livestock manure application. (Photo by of NASA Earth Observatory)

The Pollution Gate – Conowingo Dam
The Conowingo Dam has trapped an estimated 174 million tons of sediment to date, with new accumulations added each year. In addition to the buildup of sediment, excess pollution of nutrients enter the waterway from nearby farms, promoting algae blooms to form and flourish.

Sinister beauty
These strangely captivating explosions of green create “dead zones” by drastically depleting oxygen levels of the water and blocking essential, natural light. The entire ecosystem is disrupted, killing off native sea grasses and the species that depend on this habitat to flourish. (Photo by W. Volgelbein/VIMS)

Conservation & restoration efforts make an impact
Farms and organizations across the watershed are making conscious efforts to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Trees are planted along stream banks to help reduce the amount of pollutants entering the waterway. These buffers also provide critical habitat for wildlife, reduce the amount of pathogens from nearby livestock operations, and prevent erosion through the stabilization of the soil. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Oregon Dairy Farm in Lititz, Pa.
Young planted trees line a stream running through Oregon Dairy Farm, which composts food waste and cow manure, utilizes cover crop, and powers the entire farm with a methane digester. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Clean the stream
Volunteers participate in the 2016 Project Clean Stream by picking up trash at the Ellen O. Moyer Nature Park at Back Creek in Annapolis, Md., on April 2, 2016. Project Clean Stream is a program of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and includes dozens of cleanup events across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Riparian restoration at Soper Farm, Westminster, MD
Participating in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), the Soper Farm improved stream health by  reestablishing forested stream buffers on Little Morgan Run. This farm also installed cattle exclusion fencing and walkways to reduce the amount of nutrients reaching the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program)