In early May, Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators discovered dead oysters amid anoxic bottom sediments when sampling oyster reefs during several field trips. At the time, we suspected that huge quantities of polluting nutrients flushed into waterways by this spring’s record rainfall contributed to the die-off.

We worried that excess nitrogen, held in soils by years of drought, had been unleashed into waterways, and would make the Bay’s already dismal water quality even worse once the summer heat warmed the waters.

In the months after those early warning signs, reports of toxic algae blooms that closed public beaches, numerous fish kills and crab jubilees, and stressed living resources were splashed across television and newspapers throughout the Bay region. This strengthened the belief that unusually high concentrations of nutrients were impairing Chesapeake waters.

These suspicions were confirmed on Aug. 5, 2003, when the EPA released data that revealed that this year’s “dead zone” was, in fact, the worst ever recorded in the Chesapeake Bay.

The last time such expansive low dissolved oxygen conditions were present was during the summer of 1998.
Just one year ago, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act. Yet, many watershed residents are questioning how well the Act is working.

Despite limited success in reducing nutrients during the 1990s, there is no evidence that the overall water quality in the Bay and its tributaries has improved. Long-term scientific analyses suggest the opposite: Hypoxic and anoxic conditions have progressively worsened since the 1950s.

Are the Bay states and the EPA effectively implementing the Clean Water Act to protect and restore water quality in Chesapeake Bay? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be ‘no.’

The sad fact is that existing state water quality standards, promulgated pursuant to the Clean Water Act, are violated routinely.

The EPA and the key Bay states are in the third year of a five-year process to revise existing water quality criteria and standards. The Bay Program estimates that nitrogen pollution loads will need to be reduced by about one-half to comply with the expected new standards. Yet, given present conditions, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the new criteria and standards will be routinely violated as well.

Sewage treatment plants are regulated by the states under the Clean Water Act. But the fact is that not a single sewage treatment plant has enforceable nitrogen limitations included in its permit. Only one-third of the 304 major sewage treatment plants in the watershed implement any nitrogen removal. Less than 10 plants are implementing affordable, “best available technology” that removes nitrogen.

Municipal stormwater discharges are regulated by the Act as well. But not a single municipal stormwater permit includes nitrogen or phosphorus effluent limitations. Even though this is the fastest growing category of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, new development projects are not required to eliminate, or offset, new nitrogen or phosphorus pollution.

Large animal agricultural operations come under the regulatory authority of the Clean Water Act. Today, there is three times more nitrogen waste from animals than people in the watershed, yet pollution control programs pale by comparison. Modern agriculture has packed cows, hogs, and chickens into farms in densities that are five to 100 times greater than they were in the 1950s. The EPA defines a “concentrated animal feeding operation” narrowly, thus limiting the application of its “no discharge” standard to a relatively small number of facilities and agricultural land in the watershed.

The Clean Water Act also requires the development of a Total Maximum Daily Load for waters that do not meet water quality standards. These measurements are intended to identify cumulative pollution load limits for a body of water that resource managers will use to guide all individual permitting decisions. But there is no TMDL for Chesapeake Bay, one of our true national treasures.

Thirty years ago, pollution was so bad that a river in Ohio caught fire and any contact with Potomac River water was considered hazardous.

In the 30 years since then, the Clean Water Act has succeeded in eliminating some of the most flagrant sources of pollution. Its promise of “fishable and swimmable” waters, though, has yet to be met on the Chesapeake.

The majority of the pollution responsible for the Bay’s dead zone is presently regulated by the EPA and the states. This is a tool that must be used more forcefully and directly to restore our magnificent Chesapeake Bay.