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by By Alan Girard | 2012

By Alan Girard—The largest estuary in North America, the Chesapeake Bay, was once the most productive in the world. H.L. Menken called it an “immense protein factory.” But pollution generated by nearly 17 million people now living in the 64,000-square-mile watershed has left the Bay an ecosystem dangerously out of balance.

     Three decades of attempts to restore the Bay are littered with promises broken, and commitments only partially fulfilled. Voluntary measures to clean the Bay have not been sufficient.

      The Clean Water Act of 1972 set a goal of making the nation’s waterways “swimmable and fishable” by 1983. Within just a few years of the law’s passage, the process hit snags. States did not meet a 1979 deadline for devising pollution caps called for in the Act for waterways impaired with too much pollution.

      During the 1970s a rising population around the watershed produced more houses, runoff, and wastewater. Poor farm stewardship also caused considerable pollution. Prompted by these concerns in 1976, the late Senator Charles McCurdy Mathias Jr. (R-MD) pushed through Congress a seven-year Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chesapeake Bay study.

       In 1983, EPA released its findings, documenting systemic declines in water quality around the Chesapeake. The report focused not on a single cause but an accumulation of insults to the Bay based on human pressures.

      In December of that year, EPA signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement with Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. The signatories strengthened the agreement in 1987 with an additional commitment to reduce nitrogen pollution by 40 percent by 2000.

While important, these efforts produced only modest improvements in Bay health overall. Underwater grasses returned to the Potomac around Washington and to a number of other areas from which they had disappeared. Striped bass (rockfish) rebounded strongly as a result of a fishing moratorium of the late 1980s. At the same time, however, oyster stocks in both Maryland and Virginia declined to historic lows, causing great hardship in the seafood industry and prompting dangerous levels of increased fishing pressure on blue crabs.

      In 1997, a new threat arose from the toxic microorganism, Pfiesteria piscicida. Fish kills began that summer in the Pocomoke River in Maryland. Later that year, they also occurred in Kings Creek, a tributary of the Manokin River, and the Chicamacomico Rivers, also in Maryland. The kills were significant, both in loss of fish and in dramatic illnesses suffered by some watermen. They also harmed state workers investigating the kills and others.

     Around this time it became clear the early efforts to reduce Bay pollution were not enough. The states were well short of the goal set in 1987 to reduce pollution by 40 percent by the turn of the century.

     In 2000, the EPA and the Bay states signed the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, which re-affirmed the 40 percent reduction goal of 1987, and promised the Bay would be restored by 2010. As in previous agreements, however, the Bay states were left to achieve the goals voluntarily.

      Individual states did achieve some success in reducing pollution in subsequent years. Maryland subsidized the planting of winter crops that soak up left-over nutrients and also started upgrading the state’s 67 largest sewage plants with state-of-the-art nutrient reduction technology, financed with a new fee shared equally by all Maryland households.

      In 2007 the states and EPA acknowledged this lack of sufficient progress, but offered no new concrete commitments.

        In 2008, frustrated with government’s lack of progress, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and partners initiated a lawsuit against EPA for failure to enforce the Clean Water Act, formally filing a complaint Jan. 6, 2009.

      On May 12, 2009, President Obama issued an executive order requiring EPA to lead seven federal agencies in developing a plan within a year to restore the Chesapeake.

      In December 2010, EPA announced pollution limits called the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and allocated specific numeric pollution-reduction targets for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment to the Bay states and Washington, DC.

      The six watershed states and the District then each submitted a watershed implementation plan to put in place concrete pollution-reduction strategies. Counties were encouraged to help the states achieve a pollution limit under each plan. Those states that did not make reasonable progress over certain timeframes could expect consequences. The settlement of CBF’s lawsuit required EPA to establish consequences for failure, which was a major change from the earlier voluntary approach.

      Even with the challenges of the Bay restoration effort, there has been important success. Bay wide, the states and the District have already achieved a little more than half of the pollution-reduction goal set in 1987.

       But nature doesn’t accept incompletes on its report card. The Bay’s ecosystem is still severely degraded. The protein factory is working at a fraction of its capacity. Thousands of watermen, and others in the seafood and other industries, have lost their jobs over the years as a result.

        But now we have a cleanup program that includes details and a timeline that states must follow or face consequences. That program is on track. If we continue to make progress, we will add tens of thousands of jobs, to upgrade sewage and stormwater facilities and reduce farm runoff, and also to support seafood, tourism, and recreation industries as the Bay’s health recovers.

       Making progress will be good for our future. Saving the Chesapeake Bay and restoring clean water will not just benefit us; it will benefit our children and all future generations. It is important that each and every one of us gets behind the new commitment to limit pollution and finish the job.    


Alan Girard is the Eastern Shore Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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