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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Science for Kids: BZZZ…Get to Work!

Helping Save the Chesapeake Bay

Have you ever visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York? If you ever do, and decide to throw a baseball outside the museum, be careful. That ball just might end up in Cooperstown's Otsego Lake, and from there float about 500 miles to the Chesapeake Bay.

That's right. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is so big that it stretches from Otsego Lake to Virginia. So you could throw a ball anywhere in this watershed, from New York to Virginia, and have a chance of it getting washed into the Chesapeake Bay. Fifty major rivers, including the Potomac River, pour water into the bay every day, from six states.

Whatever is dumped down toilets or sinks, whatever floats in rainwater to a sewer, can end up being carried by this water into the bay. Besides baseballs, this includes plastic bags and bottles, other litter, gasoline, motor oil, tires, animal manure and fertilizers.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists like Greg McCarty, who works at the ARS Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., want to help farmers in the bay's watershed stop the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus from manure and fertilizers to the bay. In the bay, these nutrients grow algae and compost at the bay's bottom. This suffocates crabs, fish and underwater grasses. Bay life needs these grasses to survive. And the bay is a nursery for ocean life.

The main way farmers close to the Chesapeake Bay can stop extra nutrients from flowing from their fields to the bay is to plant crops like rye in the winter. The plant roots catch any fertilizer missed by the summer crops.

McCarthy and other scientists have invented a way to see how much nitrogen these winter crops are capturing. They use satellite photos combined with farming records and results from measuring winter crop growth on farms.

Farmers are among the 17 million people who live, work or play in the bay's watershed. Each of us has to do our part to keep the bay clean and alive. Not throwing anything where it might end up in the bay is a good start.

McCarthy's job is to use science to help farmers do their part.

—By Don Comis, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 8/3/2010
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