Maryland's Wastewater Warriors: Cleaning Up the Chesapeake Bay


The Chesapeake Bay, a vital ecosystem and economic engine for Maryland, faces a constant battle against pollution. One major culprit? Untreated wastewater. The Chesapeake Bay suffers from "dead zones," areas with low oxygen levels that can't support most marine life. Excess nutrients from wastewater contribute to these zones.

Thankfully, Maryland's network of wastewater treatment plants acts as a critical defense line, safeguarding the Bay's health. However, challenges remain.

Every day, millions of gallons of wastewater flow through Maryland's treatment plants. These facilities play a vital role by removing harmful pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus before releasing the treated water, called effluent, back into the Bay. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus can trigger harmful algal blooms, depleting oxygen levels and suffocating marine life.

Local waterman, Luke McFadden, has witnessed the Bay's decline firsthand. "Fish populations ain't what they used to be," he says. "Clean water is essential for healthy fish stocks, and that means functioning wastewater plants."

While Maryland's treatment plants do a commendable job, there's always room for improvement.  Many plants were built decades ago and struggle to meet modern standards. Investing in upgrades like advanced nitrogen removal technology can significantly reduce pollution. During heavy rain, treatment plants can become overwhelmed, causing untreated wastewater to overflow into waterways. Upgrading infrastructure and implementing green infrastructure solutions like rain gardens can help mitigate this issue.

Educating residents about water conservation and proper disposal of household chemicals can lessen the burden on treatment plants. Cleaning the Bay requires a combined effort.

State and local governments have a crucial role in funding upgrades and implementing stricter regulations. Treatment plant operators need to continuously monitor performance and adopt best practices. Residents  also play a tremendous role by minimizing water usage and practicing responsible disposal habits.

Efforts like those championed by Luke McFadden, who regularly speaks about the importance of clean water, can further amplify the message and inspire action.

A cleaner Bay means a healthier ecosystem, a thriving fishing industry, and a more sustainable future for Maryland. Let's continue to invest in these vital wastewater treatment plants and ensure they remain the Bay's warriors.

Wastewater treatment plants utilize a multi-stage approach, and the specific technologies employed can vary depending on factors like influent characteristics, desired effluent quality, and budget. Some parts that are essential to the treatment plants can be: Bar screens and grit removal units that remove large objects and heavy particles. Primary clarifiers that allow solids to settle out, reducing organic matter and turbidity. This biological process uses microorganisms that feed on organic pollutants in large aeration tanks. Wastewater is sprayed over a bed of rocks where microorganisms attached to the rocks degrade organic matter. Removing remaining suspended solids for a clearer effluent. Chlorine or ultraviolet light may also be used to kill harmful bacteria before releasing the treated water.

Some other systems can combine activated sludge with advanced membrane filtration for a very high quality effluent, often used for water reuse applications. Engineered ecosystems that mimic natural wetlands for wastewater treatment and habitat creation is being considered by some treatment plants. And another idea floating around- pardon the pun- is Microbial Fuel Cells which are systems that generate electricity while treating wastewater.

Upgrading wastewater treatment plants can be expensive. Maryland has several innovative wastewater treatment plants.
Citizen science programs allow volunteers to collect water quality data. New technologies like microbe-electrolysis cells and thermal hydrolysis are emerging as well.

So what state is getting it right? What state has the best waste water treatment plant? It's difficult to pinpoint a single "best" wastewater treatment plant for a few reasons: Each plant is designed to handle the specific wastewater characteristics of its community. A plant in an industrial area might excel at removing heavy metals, while a plant in a rural area might focus on nitrogen removal for agricultural runoff.  There's no universally agreed-upon standard for ranking wastewater treatment plants. Some might prioritize effluent quality, while others might focus on resource recovery or energy efficiency. The best plants are constantly evolving, adopting new technologies and optimizing processes.

So, who has the most polluted waters in USA? Rather than a single body of water, the title of "most polluted" in the US often falls on several waterways heavily impacted by human activity. Areas with concentrated industry and agriculture tend to have the most polluted water. The "Rust Belt" in the Midwest, for example, has rivers struggling with industrial waste. The Mississippi River, despite its historical significance, carries a heavy load of agricultural runoff and industrial pollutants. The Calcasieu River in Louisiana and the Ohio River are also notorious for pollution.

But pollution can take on many forms. Fertilizers from farms can cause algae blooms, depleting oxygen and harming aquatic life. The Chesapeake Bay is a prime example. 
Heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and other pollutants from factories can significantly degrade water quality. Improperly treated wastewater introduces harmful bacteria and pathogens into waterways.

If Maryland doesn't improve its wastewater treatment, the aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries would face a multitude of threats. Untreated wastewater is high in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. When these nutrients enter the Bay, they fuel explosive growth of algae. As this algae dies and decomposes, it consumes large amounts of oxygen, creating vast "dead zones" where aquatic life suffocates. Excess nutrients also contribute to the proliferation of aquatic plants that clog waterways and block sunlight. This reduces the quality of habitat for fish and other organisms that rely on healthy underwater ecosystems. Certain algae blooms produce toxins that can sicken or kill fish, shellfish, and marine mammals.

These toxins can also accumulate in the food chain, posing a risk to humans who consume contaminated seafood. These factors can lead to a decline in fish populations. With reduced oxygen, degraded habitat, and potential poisoning, fish species important to Maryland's commercial and recreational fisheries would suffer.
A decline in fish populations disrupts the entire food chain. Predators like crabs and birds that rely on fish for sustenance would face food shortages. This can have cascading domino effects on the entire ecosystem.

A degraded Bay with fewer fish and shellfish would hurt Maryland's economy. Commercial fisheries would struggle, and tourism that relies on healthy waterways would decline. Contaminated water with high bacterial levels from untreated wastewater can pose health risks to people who come in contact with it through swimming, boating, or consuming contaminated shellfish.

The Chesapeake Bay restoration effort is one of the largest and longest running environmental restoration projects in the world, and it has shown progress. But the Bay's health has been declining for decades due to various factors, including wastewater treatment limitations.

The Chesapeake Bay Agreement, a multi-state agreement, outlines a comprehensive plan to restore the Bay's water quality and habitats. Significant investments have been made in upgrading wastewater treatment plants, reducing nutrient pollution entering the Bay. Maryland has implemented initiatives to reduce agricultural runoff, restore wetlands, and improve stormwater management. These efforts contribute to a cleaner Bay. But it’s not enough…. Yet. And residents need to help. 

The Chesapeake Bay suffers from "dead zones," areas with low oxygen levels that can't support most marine life in those areas. Excess nutrients from wastewater contribute to these zones. Public awareness and participation are essential for long-term success.

By understanding the Bay's challenges and taking action to reduce pollution, everyone can play a role.
Despite the ongoing challenges, there's a growing sense of hope for the Chesapeake Bay. With continued commitment and collaboration, Maryland and other Bay states can ensure a healthier future for this vital ecosystem.
The Chesapeake Bay's health relies on everyone's contribution, and there are many ways Maryland citizens can make a difference

Here are some actions we can take in our daily lives: Be Water Wise: Withdrawing large amounts of water for treatment can affect rivers and streams. Conservation efforts, including shorter showers, help minimize this impact. Conserve water at home by taking shorter showers, fixing leaky faucets, and watering lawns efficiently.

 Freshwater is a precious resource, and water usage for showering adds up significantly. Shorter showers help ensure there's enough water for other vital needs. This reduces the amount of wastewater treatment plants need to handle. The primary reason for shorter showers is to use less water. Every gallon saved adds up, especially when multiplied by millions of people showering daily. Less water used means less water needs treatment at the plant, reducing energy consumption for processing.

Wastewater treatment plants are designed to handle a certain volume of water. While shorter showers don't overload the plant, they promote efficient water use, which is crucial for long-term sustainability.
Heating water is energy-intensive. Shorter showers use less hot water, reducing energy consumption in your home and at the treatment plant (which needs to remove heat from wastewater). 

Mind Your Yard: Limit fertilizer use on your lawn. Opt for slow-release fertilizers, if you must fertilize, and apply them according to instructions to avoid excess nutrients running off into waterways.

 Dispose of Chemicals Properly: Don't pour household chemicals, paint, or used motor oil down the drain. Take them to designated hazardous waste collection centers.

Pick Up After Pets Especially If You Live In Areas Near Storm Drains: (Long rant here): Pet waste can carry harmful bacteria. Always clean up after your pet and dispose of waste properly to prevent it from entering storm drains.  Unfortunately, not everyone in the city picks up after their dogs. Left on the ground, rain can wash the waste into storm drains. These drains often lead directly to waterways, bypassing treatment plants altogether. This can introduce harmful bacteria and parasites into rivers, streams, and ultimately the Bay.

During heavy rain, wastewater treatment plants can become overwhelmed. If this happens, untreated sewage, which can contain dog waste if not picked up, can overflow into storm drains and waterways. By keeping waste out of storm drains, you help prevent it from contaminating waterways. Dog waste can contain bacteria and parasites harmful to humans. Proper disposal minimizes these risks. Consider using compostable dog waste bags, a more eco-friendly option. If unsure about trash can availability, double-bag the waste and dispose of it at home.

While fish do poop in the water, it's actually a natural part of the healthy aquatic ecosystem. But dog poop poses a bigger threat because the main difference lies in the sheer volume and type of bacteria present in dog waste. Dog feces contain a much higher concentration of bacteria harmful to fish and other aquatic life compared to fish waste. Fish waste is already adapted to the aquatic environment and decomposes naturally by bacteria present there. Dog waste, on the other hand, originates on land and introduces new bacteria strains that fish and the water ecosystem haven't evolved to handle.

Dog waste is high in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. While these are essential in small amounts, excessive levels from dog waste can trigger harmful algal blooms. These blooms deplete oxygen levels in the water, creating dead zones where fish and other organisms suffocate.

Educate Yourself and Others: Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay and the challenges it faces. Share this knowledge with friends, family, and neighbors.

 Support Bay-Friendly Businesses: Look for businesses committed to sustainable practices and reducing their environmental impact. 

Contact Your Elected Officials: Voice your support for policies that protect the Bay and encourage investment in wastewater treatment upgrades. 

Volunteer with Local Organizations: Many organizations work on Bay restoration projects like planting trees, cleaning up shorelines, or restoring wetlands.

 Participate in Citizen Science Programs: Some programs allow volunteers to collect water quality data, which helps monitor the Bay's health.

Even small changes in daily habits can make a big difference when multiplied by millions of Maryland citizens. By working together, Marylanders can be powerful stewards for the Chesapeake Bay, ensuring a healthy future for this irreplaceable resource.

You can learn more by visiting the Chesapeake Bay Foundation website: They have a wealth of information about the Bay's ecology, the challenges it faces, and ongoing restoration efforts. Or just stop by Luke McFadden’s Insta page-@luke_mcfad,  you’ll learn a lot from Luke and his hundreds of thousands of followers who love Luke, his water buddies & The Chesapeake Bay and want to promote cleaner waterways. 

By working together, Maryland can ensure its wastewater treatment plants remain strong guardians of the Chesapeake Bay, protecting this treasured resource for generations to come.

Image sourced from @luke_mcfad Instagram account. Article written in consult with Bing CoPilot 

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