The reservoir will increase local 'dead zones'
August 30, 2008
The same week that the City Council of Newport News voted to buy land in King William County for the long-contested reservoir, Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences scientist Robert Diaz, and a colleague, published their study that showed alarming increases in the number of coastal "dead zones" around the world.
Over the last century the number of known dead zones increased from four to 405. So-called dead zones occur when bottom waters in coastal areas suffer from reduced oxygen. The name refers to the absence of larger forms of life that require dissolved oxygen, such as fish, crabs and oysters.
Far from lifeless, these areas team with microbes that feed on a steady supply of excess organic matter. As they feed, the microbes consume oxygen faster than ocean currents can replace it. The excess organic matter comes from two sources: either washed off the adjacent land or formed in the sea by photosynthesizing microscopic plants (algae). Although the algae produce abundant amounts of oxygen when alive and in the sunlit surface waters, that oxygen usually does not get mixed down to the deeper and darker waters below. The algae eventually sink into these deep waters, die, and feed the microbes that consume oxygen as part of their metabolism. Nitrogen and phosphorus washed into coastal waters from land causes the exorbitant growth of algae. We see exactly this process in the growing dead zone of the Chesapeake Bay. From early spring until late fall, the deep waters of the Chesapeake suffer increasing oxygen depletion every year.
Building the King William Reservoir will worsen the situation. Newport News Waterworks will replace natural wetlands with artificial ones. Natural wetlands protect the Bay by filtering organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus, while artificial wetlands allow more pollution through. But even worse, the entire argument for building the reservoir hinges on facilitating further development of land in the watershed. Simply put, over-development of coastal lands causes dead zones. Development means replacing natural forests and marshes with roads, subdivisions, shopping centers, parking lots, fertilized lawns and industrial areas. It also means increasing the size of the human population that pipes its urine and feces to wastewater treatment plants that drain into the bay.
Recent studies confirmed the correctness of the initial U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessment that projected growth did not merit construction of the reservoir. Indeed, water consumption actually declined over recent years. The citizenry "got it," and voluntarily reduced their use of water. With some more effort we could cut our per-capita water consumption by half and see very little impact on our lifestyle. Low-flow toilets and shower heads, ceasing lawn watering (more drought-resistant species will come in naturally), installing garden rain barrels, diverting treated wastewater for industrial and agricultural use, will all save water.
Ironically, the demand for more water projected by Newport News Waterworks did not materialize, yet it presses forward in hopes of stimulating such demand by facilitating further development of the bay's watershed. This unquenchable thirst for revenues takes its toll in: tax dollars, the rights of the Mattaponi Tribe, green space on land, and clean water in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Newport News City Council and the editorial page of the Daily Press should think hard about for what they ask:
• Do Virginians really want the consequences of more growth and development on the middle and lower peninsulas?
• Is such development really "inevitable" or can the citizenry make a rational decision to halt it?
John Smith found in Virginia a land sustainably managed by the forbears of the Mattaponi. Sadly, we, Smith's legacy, seem all too willing to despoil the last vestiges of nature in order to put money in the pockets of developers, real estate agents, politicians and utilities. How about leaving green the land that Newport News bought for the reservoir and making it a gift to our children and the creatures of the Chesapeake Bay? Both will need the oxygen.
Cuker, who lives in Hampton, is a professor of marine and environmental science at Hampton University. Send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008, Newport News, Va., Daily Press