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Chesapeake Bay: Effects of Population on America’s Largest Estuary

July 15, 2013 • Protection of Species, United States, News

Tom Horton covered environmental issues for The Baltimore Sun from 1974 – 2006 and was an educator at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for five years. He is author of several books about the Chesapeake Bay and has written for National Geographic, The New York Times and The Boston Globe. He teaches writing and environmental studies at Salisbury University, and contributes regularly to Chesapeake Bay  Magazine and the Bay Journal News Service. He currently lives in Salisbury, MD, where he is a professor of  Environmental Studies at Salisbury University and a contributor to the Bay Journal. The following paper was first published by Negative Population Growth (PDF), a national non-profit membership organization founded in 1972.

Revisiting the Chesapeake Bay
The Effect of Population Growth on America’s Largest Estuary

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) conceded in 2007 that Bay cleanup would fall
far short of a 2010 deadline, a one-word response
said it all. “Duh,” Roy Hoagland, a vice president
of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), told The
Washington Post.

Since 1998, the CBF has kept its own report card
on Bay health, based on 13 indicators of water quality,
habitat and marine life. Its goal was a score of 40 by
2010, on a scale of 0 to 100. This would return the Bay
to the considerable health it enjoyed 40 or 50 years ago.
In 2013, the CBF raised the Bay rating for the first time
in years to just 32, which they equate to a D+ grade.

Analysis performed river-by-river around the
Chesapeake by University of Maryland scientists in
2011 gave similar scores, in the C- to D range. The
EPA, which oversees the restoration, expressed Bay
health in 2008:

**Water quality: 29% of goals met; habitat: 35%
of goals met; chemical contaminants: 47% of
goals met.

**Blue crabs, the Bay’s last great commercial
fishery, are at historic lows, with both Maryland
and Virginia sharply restricting the catches of 
beleaguered watermen.

**Oyster harvests once accounted for a fifth of
everyone fishing for a living in America, but
they are virtually gone except as a farmed crop
supported by hatcheries on land. Shad, once
harvested in the millions of pounds, are at 3% of
restoration goals.

**Nitrogen, the Bay’s principal pollutant, is close to
twice what a healthy Bay could stand, with only
slight overall reduction in Bay waters since the
1980s, and rising levels in some rivers. Nitrogen
comes from farms, development, auto and power
plant emissions, and sewage-treatment plants and
septic tanks. A potent fertilizer, it fuels explosive
growth of algae when too much enters waterways.
The algae can be toxic and absorb oxygen needed
by marine life; it also makes the water murky,
shading out light needed by seagrasses vital to
fish and crabs. The same problems, all related
to human population growth, now plague coastal
waters around the globe.

These are the facts, 30 years after the Chesapeake’s
restoration began, according to Horton: at least short-
term improvement is possible if we strengthen political
will, enforce the environmental laws that achieved
major air and water improvements in the 1970s,
increase funding by several billion dollars, and reform
weak zoning that permits rampant development of the
Bay’s sensitive shorelines and rural lands.

Even so, a blind spot remains large enough to
keep us from ever recapturing the glory days of the
Chesapeake environment – water quality and habitat
for fish and wildlife similar to that of the 1950s, the
goal of the restoration.

The blind spot is the American allegiance – some
would say addiction – to perpetual economic growth,
and to encouraging an ever-expanding population of
human consumers to support it. This is the American,
pro-growth-economy mantra we are up against:

Growth is good, or necessary to our economy,
or at least inevitable and must be “accommodated.”

So accepted and unchallenged is this premise
that day to day, we discuss it little more than we do
the gravitational force that holds us to the planet. But
this misinformed attitude unfortunately leads to a far
worse philosophy:

America seems to blindly insist that with better
plans, management, and technology, the human
population and economy can grow indefinitely while
assuring a sustainable and high level of environmental
quality, including room for the rest of nature. We vow
to return today’s Bay, inhabited by 17 million people,
back to the 1950s – when 8 million people lived along
the watershed. We presume we can, in other words,
reduce our current environmental impact by half. And
reduce it enough extra to totally offset all the new
impacts on air, water, and land from the 1.7 million
more projected to move to the Bay watershed every

That is what we continue to assume, with the
connivance of most elected, environmental and
science leaders, even after 30 years of failing to do
it: Growth is good, Growth is necessary, Growth will
come, Growth can be accommodated. these are the
greatest, most uncritically accepted, and fatally
flawed assumptions made by those charged with
protecting the natural resources of the Chesapeake
Bay and our nation as a whole.

By an end to growth we do not mean an end
to capitalism, stock markets, free trade, innovation,
the profit motive, or even to greed and corruption.

Economic development would continue to underpin
our prosperity – a shift to building more comfortable,

affordable, and energy-efficient homes versus more

homes; to producing tastier, more nutritious burgers
with less impact on the environment, rather than more
and bigger ones; to rebuilding our cities and towns
and mass transit systems versus expanding roads and
the suburbs. This focus on a “steady state” economy,
rather than on a high-growth one, will better serve those
already here, instead of making endless and expensive
accommodations for all who might be induced to come.

And while the Chesapeake and its water quality
are the focus of my research, the implications extend
to the nation as a whole; and across a range of growth-
related factors determining our quality of life, from
traffic congestion and loss of open spaces, to the more
regulated existence that ensues when accommodating
more people in a finite space.

We already know what we need to do. For
decades, government and environmental leaders in the
Bay region have acknowledged that growth without
limits is at odds with a sustainable environment.
Unfortunately, elected leaders and environmental
groups have chosen to ignore (some even deny)
this fact on a national scale – making it all the more
important for citizens across America to recognize the
warning signs from our struggling Bay and voice their
concerns now, before it is too late.

At the first modern Maryland-Virginia conference
on Bay health in 1977, the concluding speaker, marine
scientist J. L. McHugh, summarized the meeting:

“One theme has run like a thread through this
conference… an issue that is almost always evaded
and certainly never addressed seriously… the human
population explosion. If we cannot cope with it, maybe
everything else will be in vain.”

Ten years later, the 1987 update of the Chesapeake
Bay Restoration Agreement, signed by Maryland,
Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the EPA, stated: “[There
is] a clear correlation between population growth
and associated development and environmental
degradation in the Chesapeake Bay system.”

A year later, the 1988 “Population Growth and
Development in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
to the Year 2020” report (by Maryland, Virginia,
and Pennsylvania) accurately predicted: “Today,
unmanaged new growth has the potential to erase any
progress made in Bay improvements….”

In 2000, an update of the Chesapeake Bay
Restoration Agreement advised that new people
moving into the Bay watershed “could potentially
eclipse” all past environmental gains.

The 2003 “Chesapeake Futures” report questioned
“whether growing population, unchecked resource
consumption and a casual disregard for the natural
environment will overwhelm our attempts to restore
the Bay.”

In 2007, a federal scientist explained to The
Baltimore Sun why pollution was actually increasing
again in several tidal rivers: “The pressures on the
Bay watershed have stepped up significantly in the last
decade… population growth has increased.”

For 36 years, the message has been clear:
population growth and development are destroying
the Bay environment, and our best efforts and latest
technologies are not reversing the damage. In fact,
they can barely keep up with it.

But, when the time for action comes, it seems
questioning the expansion of the economy and the
population are off the table – either because they are
considered sacred cows, or they are just too hard to
deal with. It is assumed we can cure the symptoms
while vigorously expanding their root causes.

If one wonders how long such denial might
continue, consider Maryland’s Patuxent River,
which drains several affluent counties surrounding
Washington and Baltimore before flowing through
southern Maryland into the Bay at Solomons Island.
In the 1970s, a decade before the larger Chesapeake
restoration began, alarming declines in water quality
and marine life focused state and federal attention on
resuscitating the Patuxent.

The strategies there became the prototype for
cleaning up the Chesapeake. Perhaps none of the Bay’s
40-odd tributaries has had more scientific expertise
and money poured into reversing environmental
decline. But today the Patuxent remains in crisis, with
no turnaround in sight. Pollution has actually risen
there in the last few years.

Population growth per se is nowhere to be found
on the long list of pollution problems there. Yet
population in its watershed has increased around 16
times since the 1960s, when the Patuxent was last
healthy, and that growth is continuing today.

Only a few decades ago our politicians and
environmental organizations forthrightly questioned
whether continued growth was good. “One of the
most serious challenges to human destiny in the last
third of [the 20th] century will be the growth of the

population,” President Richard M. Nixon said in a
speech to the nation on July 18, 1969.

Over 40 years ago, President Nixon’s bipartisan
Commission on Population and the American Future
(known as the “Rockefeller Commission” after its
chairman, John D. Rockefeller, III) reported:

“We have looked for, and have not found, any
convincing argument for continued population growth.
The health of our country does not depend on it, nor
does the vitality of business, nor the welfare of the
average person.”

The U.S. could cope with continued growth, the
Commission said, “but in so doing we shall pay a
cost reckoned not in dollars but in our way of life. We
should concern ourselves with improving the quality
of life for all Americans rather than merely adding
more Americans.”

The links between population growth and
environmental decline continued to be made, despite
widespread dismissal of the Rockefeller Commission
report. Released in 1982, the “Global 2000” report
commissioned by President Jimmy Carter recommended
that the U.S. consider a policy of population stabilization.
In 1988, the nation’s major environmental groups
drafted “Blueprint for the Environment,” warning
President-elect George H. W. Bush that “population
pressures threaten the environment all across our
nation.” In 1996, President Bill Clinton’s Council on
Sustainable Development declared the need “to move
toward stabilization of the U.S. population.”

If anyone had listened, the Chesapeake would
be a much healthier place. There were around 206
million Americans when the Rockefeller Commission
published its report in 1972. Had the nation adopted
a stable population policy then, the U.S. population
might have peaked at 230 million by 2030, according to
estimates based on U.S. Census Bureau data. Instead,
according to the Census Bureau, we have more than
315 million Americans already and are projected to
reach 400 million by shortly after mid-century.

Had the 1972 policy recommendation been
adopted, assuming similar trends in the Bay watershed
(which has roughly mimicked national population
increases), the watershed area population would be
about 15 million people in 2030. Instead, it is at
nearly 17 million now, headed for 25 million or more
by 2050.

So why do we persist in ignoring a widely
acknowledged root cause of pollution like population
growth, in light of our failure to clean up the Chesapeake
Bay (and many other national environment messes)?

Why, despite decades of commissions and studies
linking growth and environmental decline, and despite
a burgeoning commitment to forging a “sustainable”
society, do we keep pursuing growth without limits?

Our excuses fall into three overlapping categories:

**Growth is not the real problem.
**Economic progress requires growth.
**Stopping growth is politically or morally

More growth is not the way to a better, cleaner
Chesapeake or planet, according to ecological
economists. The reason: a global economy that
took all of human history to reach $600 billion a year
by 1900 now grows that much every two years. To
sustain this current, $16 trillion a year enterprise takes
more natural resources than the earth can deliver. Yet
the growth plans and aspirations of most nations call
for expanding well beyond a doubling.
It might seem the worst time to question growth,
in the depths of what many are calling the Great
Recession, with unemployment at high levels and
stock markets fluctuating erratically. In the short term,
government has little choice but to try and boost the
economy and get people working again.

But it is also an ideal time for questioning whether
the economic growth model conceived more than 60
years ago may have run its useful course; whether its
benefits, which we measure and publish in exquisite
detail, may no longer outweigh its costs, to nature
and to social well-being, which are not nearly so well

Our nation’s elected leaders, citizens, media,
businesses, and environmental organizations must
come together. We must begin a long overdue debate
of these assumptions, to place growth on the radar
screen as a critical issue. Our history of trying to
restore the Chesapeake has been one of filling in
the gaps of pollution – focusing first on sewage and
factories, later on the runoff from farms and paved
surfaces, and then recognizing the role of dirty air
falling on the watershed and realizing the cleansing,
filtering value of trees, oysters, and wetlands.
Human numbers and an economy built on their
constant expansion is the missing link. Continuing to
ignore growth renders most environmental progress
in all other areas temporary. It mocks aspirations to
live sustainably with the rest of nature, and erodes our
quality of life.

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