THE BLOG
10/09/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Dead Zones: Connecting the Dots

Dead Zones. As environmental issues go, at least this phenomenon has a catchy name. But sharing a name with a Stephen King novel doesn't make them any easier to understand or identify with. Dead zones -- large oxygen-depleted bodies of water that can't support aquatic plants or animals -- have unique characteristics that make them difficult to comprehend: Yhey disappear or shrink during certain times of the year; they are hard to see unless you have a NASA satellite; and the animals they impact don't have the have the charisma-factor of polar bears and elephants. And besides, dead zones are just a coastal issue, right? Not even close. Despite their lack of visual impact, headline sex-appeal, and their "out of sight out of mind" nature, we should all care about aquatic dead zones because we are all connected to their causes and we all feel their impacts.

Earlier this month my team and I explored the Chesapeake Bay watershed for a new educational program called EarthEcho Expedition: Into the Dead Zone (www.earthecho.org). As we traveled throughout four states and the District of Columbia investigating the causes and solutions to one of the nation's largest dead zones, we witnessed the far-reaching nature of dead zones first hand. Hundreds of miles from the Bay, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, waste from cattle walking through streams contribute to the growing dead zone just as surely as chemical fertilizers running off the lawn of a water-front home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Understanding our role in creating dead zones in many ways comes down to a single word -- water. From household chemicals and pet waste to agricultural practices and sewage treatment, the products and by-products of what we do on dry land rarely stay put. Through rainwater, and in many cases man-made infrastructures, these substances become water-born pollutants that wash into streams and rivers that feed into larger bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. During our Expedition, we experienced how important the health of an entire watershed is when considering causes and impacts of dead zones. Take the Chesapeake Bay watershed for example: it includes parts of six states -- Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia -- and the entire District of Columbia; it is home to more than 17 million people; and more than 100,000 streams, creeks and rivers thread through the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Everyone in the watershed lives within a few miles of one of these tributaries, which are like pipelines from these communities to the Bay.

Throughout the watershed, degraded streams and rivers are affecting everything from tourism to cultural heritage. The Chesapeake Bay dead zone is a significant contributor to the decline or displacement of important species like oysters, blue crabs and rockfish. The resulting environmental, cultural and economic impacts are significant and they reach far beyond the watershed itself. Now consider that there are more than 400 hundred dead zones around the world and it becomes clear why this issue deserves our attention.

The flip side of being part of a problem is that you can usually be part of the solution. As with most environmental challenges, tackling the causes and impacts of dead zones requires an integrated approach where governments, industries, communities and individuals work together. During EarthEcho Expedition: Into the Dead Zone we worked with a broad range of partners from H20 Plus and the Toyota USA Foundation to NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Program to help equip educators, students and community leaders with tools and resources to make a positive impact where ever they live.

Once again, it was the young people we met on our Expedition who give me the most hope. They understand the link between personal action and the environment and, more important, are motivated to act. From planting stream barriers and monitoring water quality to community action campaigns, they are already tackling issues like dead zones head on. During our Expedition, I had the privilege to speak with elementary, middle and high school students as well as young community organizers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They all shared a very simple philosophical approach; we have a problem and we will fix it. These young leaders have already connected the dots and they are forging ahead with finding solutions that work.

To learn more about EarthEcho Expedition: Into the Dead Zone and to see stories of young people taking action in their communities, please visit www.earthecho.org.