A primer on the Chesapeake Bay and regional restoration efforts

The rivers and forests of the Chesapeake Bay watershed are an interconnected system that provide valuable habitat for wildlife, including rockfish like this one. 

Here, in question-and-answer form, is a primer on the Bay and efforts to restore it.

Why is the Chesapeake Bay important?

The Chesapeake Bay is the nation’s largest estuary, an area where salt and fresh waters mix. Estuaries are among the most valuable and productive ecosystems on the planet and, acre-for-acre, the Bay is one of the most productive estuaries in the world. About 85 percent of all striped bass found along the entire East Coast are spawned in the Bay, and it is highly productive for other species, such as menhaden and blue crabs.

What is the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

A watershed is the area of land that drains into a given waterbody. The drainage area for the Chesapeake Bay covers about 64,000 square miles, stretching from Cooperstown, NY, nearly into North Carolina, and from West Virginia to Delaware. About half of the drainage area is in the Susquehanna River watershed, which supplies almost 50 percent of the freshwater flowing into the Bay.

What’s the Chesapeake Bay Program?

The Chesapeake Bay Program is a voluntary partnership between the federal government and states that dates to 1983, when the first of several agreements were signed by state governors and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency committing them to work together to restore the Bay to health. In 1987, they signed a more detailed agreement committing them to reduce water pollution, improve habitat, manage fish species and take other actions to help restore the Bay. Additional agreements were signed in 2000 and 2014.

What is the Bay’s main water quality problem?

The Bay’s greatest pollutants are excess amounts of two nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, which spur algal blooms. When there is more algae than Bay dwellers such as fish and oysters can consume, the excess dies and sinks to the bottom. The process of decay draws oxygen out of the water, often leaving too little oxygen to support fish, shellfish and other creatures.

Algae blooms also cloud the water, blocking the sunlight necessary to support underwater grass beds that provide important habitats for juvenile fish and crabs, as well as waterfowl. The murky water also can prevent predators from being able to find their prey.

Where do nutrients and sediment come from?               

The fertilizers and animal manure from agriculture are the largest source of nutrients that wash into streams when it rains.

Wastewater treatment plans are also major sources of nitrogen and phosphorus, though their contributions have declined sharply in recent years as large plants have been upgraded.

Urban and suburban areas contribute smaller amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus but, as more land is developed, the amount of polluted stormwater runoff is growing.

Is the Bay getting better?

In recent years, Bay water quality has generally gotten better, though the improvement is not uniform throughout the estuary. Last year, the amount of underwater grasses —

a key indicator of overall health — reached the highest level observed in decades. Dissolved oxygen levels have improved, and the summertime oxygen-starved “dead zone” has been reduced. An annual report card produced by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science this year gave the Bay its highest ever score, though it was still a C.

What is a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL?

The Total Maximum Daily Load describes a limit: the maximum amount of pollution that a body of water can receive and still meet federal water quality standards. Once established, the daily “load” is then “allocated” to sources contributing to the problem, essentially setting a pollution limit for each source. When that source has a permit, such as a wastewater treatment plant, meeting the TMDL requirement is typically required as part of the permit.

Why did the Bay need a TMDL?

Most of the Bay and the tidal portions of its tributaries do not meet water quality standards for dissolved oxygen, water clarity and chlorophyll a (a measure of algae). In many places, water has too little oxygen to support aquatic life, too much algae or is too murky to allow underwater grass beds to grow.

Why is the Chesapeake TMDL different from earlier Bay cleanup efforts?

Previous cleanup efforts were based on largely voluntary agreements between the state and federal governments. The TMDL was designed to include many elements enforceable by the EPA because those earlier efforts failed

Under the TMDL, the EPA requires detailed watershed implementation plans, which describe how states will achieve nutrient and sediment goals. As part of those plans, states must identify the amount of reductions that will come from wastewater treatment plants, farms, animal feedlots, stormwater, septic systems and other sources.

In the plans, states must demonstrate that they have the necessary regulations, permits or other enforceable agreements to reach the goals. (An enforceable agreement may include voluntary, incentive-based programs with contracts specifying needed actions and how they will be funded).

To ensure programs stay on track, states must also set two-year milestones detailing the amount of nutrient and sediment reductions that will be achieved during that time, as well as changes in programs (such as more funding or regulations) needed to achieve those goals.

What if the states fall short?

Unlike earlier Bay cleanup efforts, the EPA can take a variety of actions if states are falling short of their goals. For instance, the EPA could:

Force greater nutrient reductions from regulated sources, such as wastewater treatment plants.

Establish tougher regulatory programs for stormwater and large feedlots, known as concentrated animal feeding operations.

Deny permits for new or expanding sources of nutrient and sediment discharges, unless states can show how those loads would be offset by other nutrient and sediment reductions beyond those already necessary to meet the TMDL. This could affect wastewater or industrial discharges, some construction permits, animal feedlots and other permitted sources.

Withhold funds a state receives through Clean Water Act grants and distribute it to other states that would use it more efficiently, or target the grant to a specific area, action or facility in a state.

What was the “Midpoint Assessment” of the TMDL?

The Chesapeake Bay TMDL set an interim goal of implementing enough actions by the end of 2017 to achieve 60 percent the needed nutrient and sediment reductions. It also called for re-evaluating progress at that time, reviewing new information and making any adjustments needed to achieve the 2025 goals. Those adjustments are to be reflected in new WIPs to be written by states in coming months.

What is the status of cleanup efforts?

As a whole, the region achieved its midpoint goals for phosphorus and sediment, but fell considerably short of the nitrogen target. Progress was uneven among states. All states except Pennsylvania achieved their phosphorus goals; New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania missed their sediment goals; and New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware missed their goals for nitrogen. Pennsylvania not only missed all of its goals, it accounted for the vast majority of the region’s shortfall for nitrogen.

Will the task ahead be harder?

Not for everyone. The District of Columbia is largely done, thanks to upgrades to its Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant and the completion of its first massive underground tunnel designed to capture and treat much of its stormwater runoff.

But for others, hard work remains. The majority of the region’s nitrogen goal was met by upgrading wastewater treatment plants. Those plants are nearly all upgraded, and wastewater discharges could actually begin increasing as the populations served by plants gets larger. That means most of the reductions will have to come from agriculture and stormwater, which have been more difficult to manage.

More reductions also will be needed to offset the impact of population growth and development between now and 2025. Based on past trends, that could mean another 4 million pounds of nitrogen and 154,000 pounds of phosphorus entering the Bay.

Beginning this year, states are required to follow new protocols to periodically verify that all best management practices installed to control nutrient runoff are in place, being maintained and functioning. Only verified practices will be entered into computer models in the future and be counted toward nutrient reduction goals.

What else changed in the Midpoint Assessment?

The assessment identified two areas that will require substantial new efforts to address:

Conowingo Dam: The reservoir behind the 94-foot-high dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna River is essentially filled with sediment, and therefore no longer trapping a portion of the sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen flowing downstream. As a result, about 6 million additional pounds of nitrogen and about 260,000 additional pounds of phosphorus are reaching the Chesapeake in an average year than previously thought. The Bay states will work together to create a watershed implementation plan to fund and enact nutrient reduction activities needed to offset the additional nutrient loads.

Climate Change: Climate change has increased precipitation and the intensity of storms in the Chesapeake region. Computer models indicate that those changes are driving more water-fouling nutrients into the Bay than originally estimated — about 9 million additional pounds of nitrogen and 385,000 pounds of phosphorus a year. The Bay states have agreed to broadly describe how they will address the additional nutrient and sediment loads resulting from climate change their new WIPs. Meanwhile, the Bay Program will review the climate science used to make its initial climate change estimates and, if necessary, revise them in 2021. After that, states would adopt the revised numbers and update cleanup plans.

 What role does local leadership have in the cleanup effort?

Decisions made at the local level, such as land use planning, the regulation of septic systems and stormwater controls, can impact nutrient and sediment pollution. State and federal officials agree that the involvement of local leaders — not just local governments, but also conservation districts, watershed groups, river basin commissions and others — is essential for meeting cleanup goals.

The EPA has called for “effective local engagement” in the development of new WIPs. In addition, those plans are to include local pollution reduction planning goals.

Will the EPA enforce local goals?

No. The local goals are intended to help planning efforts. The EPA has said that responsibility for meeting nutrient reduction goals belongs with the states, not local governments.

Will local actions help local waters?

In many cases, yes. Actions that reduce runoff, such as improving stormwater controls or planting streamside forest buffers, will help protect local waters. But the level of benefit depends on the specific action and location. Upgrades for the sole purpose of controlling nitrogen discharges from wastewater treatment plants into large freshwater rivers will have little impact on local waterways. But many nutrient and sediment control efforts can be designed to also benefit local streams and rivers and reduce problems such as erosion and bacterial contamination.

Karl Blankenship is the founding editor of the Bay Journal and Bay Journal Media. You can reach him at kblankenship@bayjournal.com.

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