BATTERY PARK — Steve Carter finished unloading a dozen bushels of oysters from his battered fishing boat when he paused to look at the Pagan River.
"All out here," he said gesturing toward a nearby inlet, "it's loaded with oysters."
"But you can't get them," he continued, "because they say the water's polluted" with phosphorus and other nutrients that, in excess, can wreak havoc on waterways, including Chesapeake Bay tributaries like the Pagan.
An essential element that helps form DNA and human bones, phosphorus is used to make everything from bombs to toothpaste. Its most common application is fertilizer — a product homeowners apply to their lawns and farmers rely on to grow crops and raise animals.
Studies suggest that minable reserves are dwindling, which could trigger rising food prices, and possibly famine and war. Efforts are underway to curtail runoff, including a controversial Chesapeake restoration plan, but phosphorus and other nutrients continue to degrade water quality in
And watermen, who once filled nearly every nook and cranny of the bay, are becoming as rare as the seafood they stalk.
"There a lot less watermen now because you're not going to get the oysters that you did in the 1950s," said Carter's mate, Chet McPherson.
The majority of phosphorus runoff in Virginia — more than 2 million pounds — leaches annually from farms, especially its poultry producers. Other major sources are sewage plants, city and suburban streets, and forests.
That's according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which three years ago launched a 15-year plan to reduce the flow of phosphorus, nitrogen and sediments into the bay. The nutrients can help plants, oysters and other organisms grow, but too much creates algae blooms that lead to oxygen-deprived "dead zones" that kill fish and other aquatic life.
Combined with diseases, overfishing and tougher regulations, the pollution helped shutter dozens of Virginia's seafood processing plants. Once lucrative fisheries, such as blue crabs and oysters, nearly collapsed.
"It's a big issue, especially when it comes to fertilizers and manure," said Carl Hershner, director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
If Virginia and other bay watershed states do not meet two-year benchmarks, the EPA says it will withhold grants, require sewage plant upgrades and take other measures to force them into compliance. Expected to cost billions of dollars in Virginia alone, the plan is the subject of lawsuits filed by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Homebuilders.
Scientists and policymakers have been aware of the problem for decades, said Chuck Epes, a spokesman for the
"The general take is that the agricultural community and others have achieved about the half the reductions possible," Epes said.
Help is on the way. In 2010, it became illegal in Virginia to sell dishwasher detergents that contain phosphorus. Starting in 2014, it will be against state law to sell most fertilizer products that contain the element. The law allows the use of starter fertilizer, manipulated manure, yard compost and other products, but it has confounded fertilizer sellers who say that plants often need the element to grow.
“I don’t know what it’s going to do,” Chuck Lilly, owner of Mayo’s Garden Supply in
The Hampton Roads Sanitation District partnered with a Canadian firm, Ostara, to turn phosphorus-rich human waste into fertilizer at its Nansemond River treatment plant. Previously, HRSD ran wastewater through repeated cycles to remove most phosphorus, a process that corroded pipes, was costly and reduced operating capacity, said Bill Balzer, the plant's manager.
HRSD now sends wastewater to a separate building, where the phosphorus is removed from the water and turned into dry pellets. During the last 12 months, HRSD and Ostara have produced 215 tons of fertilizer, some of which could have been discharged into the river.
"We're taking phosphorus already thrown down the drain and we're pulling it back from the dead," Balzer said.
Like oil and water
There are signs the work is paying off — crab and oyster landings in Virginia are up and environmental groups like the bay foundation generally agree that waterways are cleaner now than in previous decades.
And while rare, the partnership between HRSD and Ostara could be a sign of things to come. Parts of Sweden require all new toilets to separate urine for agriculture use. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research on similar efforts.
Mark Edwards, a marketing professor and co-organizer of Arizona State University's Sustainable Phosphorous Initiative, said recovering phosphorus from animal waste, algae and other sources could help avert a crisis. Also, scientists are developing crops that require less of the element to grow, he said.
With global population growing — 4.2 billion people since 1950 — there are no signs that mankind's need for food and, consequently, phosphorus will diminish. The situation could cause more stress on the bay and other waterways, including the Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes.
Edwards likened the situation to oil, clean water and other finite natural resources that people rely on.