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The Many Names of Chesapeake Bay Restoration
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by Claudia Friedetzky | 2012

Call it what you will—Bay pollution diet, Bay total maximum daily load (or TMDL), Chesapeake Bay restoration, or watershed implementation plan (or WIP)—all these terms describe the most ambitious watershed restoration process ever undertaken in the United States.

What Everyone Needs to Know about the Biggest Watershed Restoration Process Ever Undertaken in the United States

 

By Claudia Friedetzky—Call it what you will—Bay pollution diet, Bay total maximum daily load (or TMDL), Chesapeake Bay restoration, or watershed implementation plan (or WIP)—all these terms describe the most ambitious watershed restoration process ever undertaken in the United States.

      It will stay with us for a long time to come, and offers the greatest chance in 40 years to restore the Chesapeake Bay and reduce pollution in local rivers and streams. We all appreciate the benefits of clean water, but many of us have been shielded from the cost that dirty water has imposed. The success of the Chesapeake Bay restoration depends on activists understanding its basic principles and mechanisms so we can support and advance the cleanup of our waterways.

 

Where does Restoration take place?

This might be obvious: in the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed. But the geographical area requires some clarification. There are seven jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: six states and the District of Columbia. These states include Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. EPA has directed all of these states to develop clean water plans (aka watershed implementation plans or WIPs) that include all the strategies necessary to reduce water pollution in local rivers, streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

 

What kind of pollution?

There are several types of water pollution, and Chesapeake Bay restoration only deals with nutrient pollution and sediment. Nutrient pollution consists of nitrogen and phosphorus. I like to think of nutrient pollution as plant food, because runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus into our waterways leads to massive overgrowths of algae, which sink to the bottom of water bodies where they decompose. The process of decomposition uses up oxygen in the water, leading to dead zones where no life can thrive. Sediment is another important pollutant, making the water too murky for sunlight to penetrate where underwater grasses grow. These grasses provide important habitat for crabs and fish species.

In other words, reducing nutrient pollution is about preventing water bodies from dying and becoming entirely inhospitable to marine life and human activities like swimming and fishing.

 

What sources of nutrient pollution are we talking about?

OK, so we know what types of pollution will be reduced, but where does nutrient pollution come from? There are generally four types of nutrient pollution sources. Agricultural runoff contains fertilizer and animal manure that washes into streams after it rains. Similarly, lawn fertilizer also ends up in our rivers and streams. The water discharged from wastewater-treatment plants into streams contains nitrogen and phosphorus; houses on septic systems pollute at five times the rate of homes on sewer systems. And finally, stormwater runoff is rainwater which picks up nitrogen and toxic pollutants from roofs, roads and parking lots as it flows into storm drains and from there directly into a stream. But nitrogen emitted from the tail pipes of motor vehicles not only pollutes when it is washed from roads and parking lots; it also gets deposited from the air itself.

 

Reduce But By How Much?

You may think that surely, we must reduce vast amounts of pollution to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Luckily, that’s not the case. We are talking about reducing pollution by about one fourth, i.e., 25 percent nitrogen, 24 percent phosphorus and 20 percent sediment. We can do it!

 

Timeframe

All good things take time.

     And the restoration of the Bay will take an especially long time, which presents a great opportunity for Sierra Club members who tend to make long-term commitments when they sign up with our organization. Under the current schedule, EPA expects Maryland and all of its counties to achieve 60 percent of the pollution reduction by 2017 and meet all of the required pollution reduction goals by 2025.

     Let me guess. As you are contemplating this schedule, you are having concerns. The state has five years until it needs to complete 60 percent of pollution reductions. That’ll never happen, you think. Well, after decades of unsuccessful restoration efforts, the EPA has come to the same conclusion and introduced a new concept.

 

The Two-Year Implementation Milestones

Rather than letting years and years pass without checking in as to whether the states are meeting their water-pollution reduction goals, EPA decided that it would be a good idea to check in more frequently with the goal of catching slackers in the act.

      Every two years, the state of Maryland and its counties have to submit a plan that details what strategies they are planning to implement in the upcoming two years. At the end of the two years, EPA expects to see reports from Maryland about what has been accomplished. And if the states get little or nothing done . . .

 

. . . There Will Be Consequences!

Indeed. Read it again. C-o-n-s-e-q-u-e-n-c-e-s! The era of voluntary and ineffective measures is over for now. The Bay pollution diet is a mandate backed up by EPA with consequences for the states, if they do not follow through on their commitments that they made in their Clean Water Plans (also known as the watershed implementation plans or WIPs). The EPA is considering the following actions to encourage underperforming states to live up to their commitments: expansion of regulation to previously unregulated sources; requirement of additional pollution reductions from wastewater treatment plants; and attaching additional conditions to EPA grants.

     So now, you are getting more convinced that Chesapeake Bay restoration will actually be successful. But, since you are an informed and questioning reader, you will ask what about . . .

 

. . . Anticipated Population Growth

and the increase in pollution that comes from that? You are right! That’s a huge issue.

     Annually, 170,000 additional people move into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And with every new person who moves into the watershed comes new pollution to local streams, rivers, and the Bay.

     The current framework for Chesapeake Bay restoration addresses this challenge because the only way we will be able to restore the Bay is by accounting for and offsetting water pollution that is anticipated in connection with future pollution loads.

      The state’s Clean Water Plan recommends using smart-growth approaches to limit future pollution loads. There are several principles underlying smart growth, including mixed-use development in existing urban areas that are connected to sewer, and walkable neighborhoods that are accessible by public transportation. By limiting the spread of impervious surfaces (roads, roofs, parking lots) and reducing the amount of traffic and number of septic systems, smart growth limits three sources of water pollution: air deposition, septic and stormwater pollution.

      Smart growth’s opposite, sprawl growth, in addition to all of its negative impacts on quality of life, is a death knell for our rivers. Sprawl growth removes forests and natural areas and replaces them with impervious surfaces that do not absorb and filter rain water. Sprawl growth causes stormwater pollution. It is a well-documented fact that the water quality in a river declines precipitously when impervious surface in the watershed exceeds 10 percent.

       So smart growth generally is the way to go. But even smart growth adds to water pollution, so how do we handle these added pollution loads? Through . . .

 

Offsetting

Chesapeake Bay restoration requires that new pollution loads need to be offset. This means that wherever a new pollution load is introduced, there needs to be an offsetting reduction in water pollution somewhere else. For example, the state is envisioning that farmers will institute practices on their land, such as installing forest buffers or restoring wetlands, to reduce pollution more than was required of them under already existing laws and regulations. They may then sell the additional reduction in pollution to a developer, for instance, who needs to offset the pollution caused by a new development.

      So now, you are becoming skeptical again. It all sounded pretty confidence-inspiring. That last part, however, strikes you as far-out and raises a lot of questions. Again, you are right. The current framework for Chesapeake Bay restoration relies on nutrient trading as an integral means of accounting for and offsetting increased pollution loads due to population growth in the Bay watershed. Sierra Club’s national conservation policies indicate a general opposition to pollution trading as a way of dealing with environmental regulation, and list a number of conditions that need to be in place to ensure that a pollution trading program is viable. The Chapter is paying close attention to the evolving offset policy and the overall nutrient trading approach EPA and the state of Maryland are taking to ensure that we are actually offsetting new pollution. n

 

Claudia Friedetzky is the Conservation Representative for water issues for the Maryland Chapter.

 

 

> 2012 Table of Contents

   
   

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