The poor health of the Chesapeake Bay is again getting a great deal of attention from politicians, nongovernmental agencies, editors and the public. The severe degradation of the Bay has been well-?documented for decades. Continuing population growth, the further development of the lands in the watershed and lack of success in stopping historic nutrient and chemical loads seem to result in a yearly net increase in the degree and extent of degradation.
Past promises and commitments to restore the Bay have not been kept. I am very pessimistic that new planned efforts will be any more effective.
To properly identify and understand the issues that contribute to the degradation of the Bay, one might examine the well-?publicized environmental degradation in most of the waters of Third World countries. For example, their rivers are polluted from raw human sewage; large domestic animals that walk in them to drink and defecate; and chemicals discharged by industries. We shudder when we realize that local populations have to use these waters for washing, bathing, cooking and drinking.
We take it for granted that these deplorable conditions do not apply to us.
But don't they? Pollution loads to the Bay come from numerous sources.
Raw sewage enters through combined sewage overflows. While we have many fine sewage treatment facilities, numerous drains for the sanitary-sewage systems are interconnected with the stormwater drains. These connections allow raw, untreated sewage to enter rivers and the Bay during even minor rain events. Some of these existing connections are more than 100 years old.
Also, livestock on farms often have direct access to streams and creeks, which they walk into to drink or defecate.
Furthermore, industrial complexes use the waters of the Bay tributaries for their manufacturing processes. Although the main elements in their discharges are well-regulated, most of their byproduct discharges are not and these wastewaters contain various chemicals.
We need to face it-there are many similarities between the degradation of the waters in Third World countries and those in our own backyard.
All discharges into the nation's water and air are directly or indirectly regulated by the EPA with the support of similar agencies in the states. These agencies are responsible for protecting the nation from pollution through the implementation and enforcement of the Clean Water Act (1972 with amendments) and the Clean Air Act (1970 with amendments) and similar legislation by the states.
The EPA has obviously not been effective with its regulatory responsibility to prevent the degradation of the Bay. Nor has the EPA required the applicable state and local agencies to abide by the requirements of these acts to protect these resources.
Threats or actual lawsuits have not had much impact in improving the EPA's regulatory responsibility. Part of the problem may be that the Clean Water and Clean Air acts are out of date.
The main philosophy that appears to have driven the implementation of the clean water and air acts is that their solution to most pollution is dilution. A permit system was established that allows potential pollution to occur as long as the receiving body can dilute it. Recently, cumulative impacts are to be considered, but those are hard to quantify and enforce. The proof of the failure is the current state of the Bay.
Although the approach used in implementing the clean water and air acts is now dated, it could have been more effective if other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Fisheries Service, and the fisheries agencies of the various states took a much more aggressive role. These agencies have a right and responsibility to provide specific information about the potential impacts of EPA regulatory actions on their fish and wildlife resources.
Fish and wildlife agencies have focused on managing harvests instead of taking a full stewardship approach in their management. The authority for the fish and wildlife agencies to be active partners with the EPA in the ecosystem management comes from the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act (1934, as amended in 1958 and 1965), while the requirement for these agencies to protect and preserve the living resources in perpetuity comes from the Public Trust Doctrine.
Based on the status of important aquatic resources, their input has not been very effective, with a very limited number of exceptions. This is demonstrated by the state of the Bay's living resources.
Perhaps legal action should be taken by the federal, interstate, and/or state fish and wildlife agencies against the EPA and state environmental agencies. President Lincoln stated in 1861, concerning the U.S. Court of Claims: "It is as much the duty of government to render prompt justice against itself, in favor of its citizenry as it is the same, between private individuals."
The reality is that the EPA and other agencies cannot enforce the laws and regulations (nor strengthen laws) without the strong support of fish and wildlife agencies as well as support from local, state and federal politicians.
Although politicians would also like a clean and healthy Bay, ignoring pollution has been profitable. Cleanup and restorations are costly, and real enforcement will require restrictions in some societal uses and activities. Therefore, President Lincoln's support for interagency justice is urgently required.
Let's examine the EPA's current focus for improving the Bay's water quality. Does it focus on stopping all possible polluted discharges? The answer is no! This approach does nothing to turn off human-caused discharges of sewage and nutrients, such as those from the combined sewage overflows. Instead, this is a modeling effort for potentially allowing a total maximum daily loadings of nutrients. The TMDL is a "trial and error" approach that tries to estimate the quantity of sewage/nutrients that the Bay could process in a given day. And, if the allowed quantity is too high, the numbers can be adjusted every two years; this could go on until 2025.
The TMDL approach is similar to the "calorie counting" many of us use to control our weight and increase our health. The first step in this application is to estimate/model/calculate the TMDL for the Bay and each tributary. This is similar to the calorie intake recommendations recommended for people of different sizes.
But the Bay is a sick ecosystem that is missing major portions of its natural digestive system (oysters). Therefore, the calculated TMDL for the heavily stressed Bay needs to be much lower than that for a fully functioning ecosystem. For example, a world-class Olympic athlete in training has been reported to consume 10,000 calories per day with no weight problem, while average people are to stay below 2,000 calories per day, and sick/bed-ridden people need even fewer calories.
Does the Bay's TMDL model assume that the sick Bay can assimilate the energy input of an Olympic athlete or the energy requirements of an average or sick person?
The TMDL can be a monitoring tool, like calorie counting, but it should not replace biology-based goals such as levels of dissolved oxygen. Nor should the development of TMDLs and their implementation and evaluation be an excuse for the much delayed enforcement of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.
The first order of business should be to shut down all possible point sources of pollution. Also, much greater efforts are needed to monitor, prevent and enforce septic tank management standards and other potential nonpoint sources inputs to the Bay.
If these were achieved, the Bay's health could be turned around and the biological resources could recover and take their important place in a healthy and functioning ecosystem. The TMDLs could still be a tool to understand the energy flow through the different trophic levels in the ecosystem. That would be a much better application of this modeling exercise than calculating how much sewage the Bay can take without dying.
Our historic and current approach to aquatic ecosystem management needs to be improved through the legislative and judiciary process. Also, environmental and living resources agencies need to be more aggressive in working toward their common goal: a healthy and functioning Chesapeake aquatic ecosystem.