By Tom Zolper
Overall, agricultural runoff from animal waste and
fertilizers is the number one source of the pollution that
harms the Chesapeake Bay. But look closer, and you may find
that wastewater, stormwater, or septic systems play a larger
role in the water quality where you live.
Western Branch Elizabeth River, Virginia
Known for its muscular waterfront and a naval shipyard on
the Elizabeth River, Portsmouth, Virginia, also is a city of
leafy suburban neighborhoods with wide streets and carefully
Arguably, it’s the quiet subdivisions that are harming the
Western Branch of the Elizabeth River more than any industry.
About 86 percent of the nitrogen entering the river comes
from urban and suburban polluted runoff, and 91 percent of
the phosphorus, according to the latest computer modeling
by the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Portsmouth is hardly alone. Urban and suburban polluted
runoff is a major source of nutrient pollution in many densely
populated city and suburban areas. Nutrients (nitrogen and
phosphorus) are one of the main causes of the bad water
quality that plagues the Bay and many of its tributaries.
Summer algal blooms, poor clarity, low oxygen, and fish kills
are the commonly seen signs of this pollution.
The shores of the Western Branch are crowded by thousands
of homes with beautiful green lawns and sidewalks where
residents walk their dogs. One of those communities is
Westhaven, named for the river and for the pleasant environs.
But after a rain storm, runoff in the neighborhood carries
lawn fertilizer, pet waste, and other contaminants into storm
drains, which discharge directly into the Western Branch.
Like other populated areas, Portsmouth is required by
federal and state law to reduce polluted runoff. It’s trying.
It levies a stormwater utility fee, which together with other
funding raises about eight million dollars a year to attack the
problem. The city is trying to educate residents. It distributes
brochures on yard care and proper disposal of pet waste. It
even hands out environmental coasters and coloring books.
Portsmouth has also taken advantage of matching grants from
Virginia’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund. This program
supports local projects that better manage runoff and provide
additional community benefits, including a pond Portsmouth
is building off Beaton Drive to treat polluted runoff and to
In the next few years the city will consider using green
infrastructure for downtown Court Street as well as other
projects to increase trees and other vegetation that soak
up and treat runoff. In the near term the city expects to
Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Western Branch
of the Elizabeth comes from polluted runoff.
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U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY