Tom Pelton is Senior Writer and
Investigative Reporter for the
Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Read his blog, Bay Daily, at
It looked like a garden of black roses growing from the bottom of the river.
It was a peculiar sight over the side of my
canoe as I glided down the Potomac River
15 miles north of Harpers Ferry, West
Virginia. The water was crystal clear, allowing the sun to slice all the way to the bottom, which glittered gold.
Swarms of tiny fish darted in and out of
lush stands of wild celery blooming with
star-shaped white flowers. Smallmouth bass
cruised through the grasses, as did a fat,
The scene was so beautiful it was almost
hard to believe: sunshine, silver-topped
clouds, and a river swimming with life.
I tied my canoe to the knuckle of a
tree root, and waded to my chest in the
It was only after climbing back into my
boat that I saw the disturbing garden.
Blobs of neon-green and black algae clung
to the tops of wild celery stalks, making
the plants look like black roses. Elsewhere,
goopy wads of this algae tumbled down
What I saw is called blue-green algae, but it
is technically not a plant or algae at all. It is
a bacteria called cyanobacteria, and it is
one of the most primitive forms of life on
Earth. Cyanobacteria multiply in the
Potomac and other Chesapeake Bay tributaries in the hot months, fed by polluted
runoff from farms and subdivisions and
effluent from sewage plants.
Cyanobacteria produce a toxin that can
kill fish and cause skin rashes and vomiting
While paddling downstream, I reflected on
what I had seen and reached two conclusions:
First: There is still a lot of life and beauty
left in the Potomac and other Chesapeake
Bay tributaries that is worth fighting to
save. In fact, the Potomac has improved
substantially since the 1960s and 1970s,
when blue-green algal blooms were even
Second: Rivers like the Potomac are classic
examples of why we need government
intervention to improve our world. No mat-
ter how well intended, no one person or
business—working voluntarily and indi-
vidually—could possibly clean up the
Potomac River. If I stopped fertilizing my
lawn, for example, but a golf course in a
state upstream increased its use of fertilizer,
the black roses would bloom.
This need for coordination explains why the
September 13 decision by Federal District
Judge Sylvia Rambo to uphold EPA pollution
limits for the Chesapeake Bay was so important. Farm and industry lobbying groups had
sued to overturn the limits, but the judge
ruled the plaintiff’s claims were based on the
law and sound science. Unfortunately, many
of those same lobbying groups are appealing
the decision, potentially derailing the future
of clean water. We need to bring together the
chaotic, clashing interests of different people
in different states, and get them all flowing in
the same direction, like a river.
The Potomac River is cleaner now than in the 1960s. But it still suffers from agal blooms, which
points to the need for the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
A Garden of
Grows in a
By Tom Pelton