The Chesapeake Bay Program often refers to itself as a “watershed partnership.” In fact, the words are even part of our official logo. Most often, people use the phrase to describe the program’s unique blend of states, the District of Columbia, the legislative Chesapeake Bay Commission and the EPA representing the federal government.

Our collaborative effort is a national, even an international, model for interjurisdictional cooperation. But to be successful, our partnerships need to go deeper than that. We also rely on the cooperation of scientists and their expertise.

We need partnerships that are based on the interplay of voluntary programs and regulatory requirements. Farmers and watermen, educators and environmentalists, poultry processing facility operators and local government officials are all important components of the larger partnership that is an essential part of the Bay restoration effort.

We are in the midst of a major effort that is testing the limits of those partnerships, and we are coming upon a critical moment when our success will depend in large part on our most important partner: you.

The Clean Water Act requires states to establish water quality standards for all of the waters of each state.

Almost all of the power of the Clean Water Act flows from these standards because they will become the yardstick against which all actions are measured. Importantly, water quality standards form the basis for the permits that are issued to every water pollution discharger in the state.

The Bay states have had water quality standards for the Chesapeake for decades. The problems with those standards, though, were overwhelming. An obvious example: The dissolved oxygen standard in Maryland’s portion of the Bay differed from Virginia’s. The poor blue crab, trudging up the Bay, didn’t suddenly have a different need for oxygen when he hit the state line.

The existing standards were based on 1960s-era science and not on today’s scientific understanding of the Bay’s natural dynamics.

Clearly we needed new standards that were consistent across the Bay and its tidal waters and that were based on the needs of the living resources of the Bay, not some “one-size-fits-all” set of generic standards.

How could we come up with the right standards and make them ecologically consistent across state lines? The answer was obvious: Use the partnerships of the Bay Program.

The first step was to convene teams of experts on the needs of the living resources of the Bay. These scientists developed an extraordinarily detailed, peer-reviewed set of water quality criteria, or guidelines for the states to use in establishing the first-ever water quality standards tailor-made to protect the living resources of the Chesapeake Bay.

This was scientific collaboration at the highest level, with experts from a number of disciplines and all of the Bay states (and a number from beyond the confines of the watershed) working together to develop a unique set of water quality criteria.

Because the EPA has the overall responsibility for giving states guidance on establishing water quality standards, the agency took the lead in this partnership effort, but institutional affiliations were soon ignored in the vigorous exchanges that epitomize science in action. The partnership was working.

The next step was to have the states take all of that good science and assign the pollution reduction goals to each jurisdiction.

Getting even two states to agree on pollution reduction plans has been difficult across the country. In fact, the nation’s courts are clogged with the states and the EPA fighting over this precise issue. How could we get not only Maryland and Virginia to agree, but also the other jurisdictions with tidal waters (Delaware and the District of Columbia) and the freshwater states of Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia, which also affect Bay water quality, to agree to a common set of goals?

Again, the answer was the partnerships for which the Bay Program is renown.

All seven jurisdictions, along with the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the EPA worked hard to overcome all of the usual problems associated with this kind of effort.

We let the science guide us, and the result was an extraordinary—one might justifiably say unprecedented—agreement in which each of the jurisdictions agreed to allocations that, taken as a whole, will result in restored water quality and robust living resources in the Bay.

The allowable pollutant levels were set at dramatically lower levels than current conditions because scientists had determined what the living resources of the Bay needed. The agreement on allocations was reached because the partnership was working.

The next chapter in this effort is unfolding. Each of the jurisdictions with tidal waters is going through its own regulatory process as it updates its water quality standards using the new criteria guidance.

At the time of this writing, Delaware is finalizing its package for submission to the EPA for final approval. The District of Columbia is about to submit its package for formal public review. Maryland will be hosting a series of informal public meetings this summer and publishing its draft regulations for formal public review by the end of the summer. Virginia is scheduled to present its draft regulations to its State Water Control Board this month as the first step in the public review process.

All of these jurisdictions have established draft standards that are designed to meet the needs of the Bay’s living resources. They are tough, but they are exactly what the Bay needs.

Not everyone will be enthusiastic about these proposed standards. Some may complain about how hard it’s going to be to meet them. They also know that once the standards are adopted, all water pollution control permits will have to be written to meet the requirements of the new standards. There will be a natural tendency to cut corners or block the process from moving forward quickly.

Right now, the Bay Program needs its most important partner: you.

As the Bay Program partner jurisdictions go through the regulatory process, they need to hear from you that you support new water quality standards that meet the living resource needs of the Bay.

Remember, we are trying to put into place a common set of standards that are based on the ecological needs of the Bay. Bay watershed citizens who want to restore the Bay need to support their states in adopting these standards that are both scientifically appropriate and will put the full weight of the Clean Water Act behind the restoration effort.

For this watershed partnership to work, we need you.

For information about the proposed changes in water quality standards and to make your opinions known, contact:

  • Delaware: John Schneider. Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, 89 Kings Highway, Dover, DE 19901. 302-739-4590. John.schneider@state.de.us
  • District of Columbia: James R. Collier, D.C. Department of Health, 51 N Street, N.E., 5th Floor, Washington, DC 20002. 202-535-1656. James.collier@dc.gov
    Maryland: Richard Eskin, Maryland Department of the Environment, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore, MD 21230. 410-537-3691. Reskin@mde.state.md.us
  • Virginia: Alan Pollock, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, P.O. Box 10009, Richmond, VA 23240-0009. 804-698-4002. Aepollock@deq.state.va.us