Writing the Menu for the Chesapeake Bay “Pollution Diet”

July 24, 2015

The largest estuary in North America is the Chesapeake Bay with its 8,000-mile shoreline and a whopping 64,000-square-mile watershed. Maryland and Virginia comprise the shoreline states, but the watershed extends to parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, all of the District of Columbia, and, incredibly, as far north as the Finger Lakes in New York state.

The water surface itself is about 200 miles long with Norfolk, VA, at its southernmost point, and Havre de Grace, MD, at its northern end. Half of the bay is saltwater from the Atlantic, and the rest is fresh water received as the drainage from the tributaries of the watershed states.

The Hot Spot of Concern
Today, the population of the region has jumped to more than 17 million, and a multitude of stressors from agriculture to wastewater affect the bay watershed health. Excessive levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in the bay and its tidal waters have caused algal blooms, dead zones for lack of oxygen, and depletion of underwater grasses. These in turn have widespread effect, impacting aquatic and shore wildlife, recreation and tourism, and the fishing and shellfish industries whose successful economies are water-quality dependent.

Although residents of only two watershed states, Maryland and Virginia, can potentially look out the window at an algal bloom, all agree that nutrients, by far, are today’s hot spot of concern for the Chesapeake Bay. While the Chesapeake Bay Program celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2013, the 2010 federal government intervention in the form of the EPA Chesapeake Bay total maximum daily load (TMDL) has been helping member states achieve specific timeline goals. EPA pulled together the multistate and disparate partner resources under one umbrella, harnessing their collective skills and energies in what is now proving to be a successful team approach.

The largest estuary in North America is the Chesapeake Bay with its 8,000-mile shoreline and a whopping 64,000-square-mile watershed. Maryland and Virginia comprise the shoreline states, but the watershed extends to parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, all of the District of Columbia, and, incredibly, as far north as the Finger Lakes in New York state. The water surface itself is about 200 miles long with Norfolk, VA, at its southernmost point, and Havre de Grace, MD, at its northern end. Half of the bay is saltwater from the Atlantic, and the rest is fresh water received as the drainage from the tributaries of the watershed states. The Hot Spot of Concern Today, the population of the region has jumped to more than 17 million, and a multitude of stressors from agriculture to wastewater affect the bay watershed health. Excessive levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in the bay and its tidal waters have caused algal blooms, dead zones for lack of oxygen, and depletion of underwater grasses. These in turn have widespread effect, impacting aquatic and shore wildlife, recreation and tourism, and the fishing and shellfish industries whose successful economies are water-quality dependent. Although residents of only two watershed states, Maryland and Virginia, can potentially look out the window at an algal bloom, all agree that nutrients, by far, are today's hot spot of concern for the Chesapeake Bay. While the Chesapeake Bay Program celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2013, the 2010 federal government intervention in the form of the EPA Chesapeake Bay total maximum daily load (TMDL) has been helping member states achieve specific timeline goals. EPA pulled together the multistate and disparate partner resources under one umbrella, harnessing their collective skills and energies in what is now proving to be a successful team approach. [text_ad] Writing the Menu for the Historic Pollution Diet After decades of restoration efforts by each of the watershed's seven individual districts, Bill Stack, deputy director of programs at the Center for Watershed Protection in Ellicott City, MD, says, "The bottom line is, there just wasn't sufficient progress on the ground." EPA calls the Chesapeake Bay TMDL a "historic and comprehensive 'pollution diet' with rigorous accountability measures to initiate sweeping actions to restore clean water in the Chesapeake Bay and region's streams, creeks, and rivers." Each region in the huge watershed has specific challenges to meet in bringing their respective waters into compliance with the US Clean Water Act's 1972 environmental goals that require all the nation's water quality be "fishable" and "swimmable." When waters are impaired by pollution and contaminants, a TMDL must be developed by looking at all sources of contaminants, and management strategies developed to reduce those contaminants to acceptable levels. In essence a TMDL defines how much pollution the water can receive and still be 'fishable and swimmable," or, in other words it's a little bit like "how much junk food can you eat and still be healthy." Building Stewardship and Trust Stack relates the key backstory points. "Prior to my current role here at CWP, I managed the surface water program and stormwater permits for the city of Baltimore and was also involved in environmental efforts of tributary restoration as chairman of the Patapsco Back River team." He recalls that at the time, the bay was listed as "impaired for dissolved oxygen [DO], and the EPA decided to allow states in the watershed to try and meet [nutrient] load reduction targets through voluntary activities. "This tributary strategy effort of which the Patapsco team was a member was made up of volunteers and local government, agriculture, urban groups, you name it," he says. "It was a very effective process in communication, in building stewardship and trust between the various parties."

DEFINING THE POLLUTION DIET

EPA says the TMDL—pollution diet—identifies the maximum amount of a pollutant the waterway can receive and still meet water-quality standards. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is the largest and most complex of the agency's more than 40,000 TMDL projects completed across the US. EPA reports that it is a combination of 92 smaller TMDLs for individual Chesapeake Bay tidal segments and is designed to achieve signifi cant reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution. This includes pollution limits that are sufficient to meet state water-quality standards for dissolved oxygen, water clarity, underwater bay grasses, and chlorophyll-a, an indicator of algae levels. Begun in 2010, the TMDL has the goal "to ensure all practices necessary to fully restore the Bay and its tidal waters are in place, with at least 60% of the actions taken by 2017." EPA monitors the progress of individual districts biannually to measure how the jurisdiction is doing in reaching the two-year milestones so that by 2025 the goals have been reached.
  While progress was made in varying degrees, it wasn't enough, and he recalls that eventually there was a third-party lawsuit that forced EPA to get involved and bring all the jurisdictions and stakeholders under its monitoring authority toward a common goal with specific timeline benchmarks. This process was further motivated by President Obama's Executive Order 13508 on May 12, 2009, directing the federal government to lead a renewed restoration and protection effort for the bay. "What this program meant was that each watershed state would have accountability to meet pollution reduction milestones set by the EPA," explains Stack. The reductions were developed by the agency after much reviewing of data that summarized various bay water-quality monitoring resources, point- and nonpoint-source pollutants, and other factors. EPA calculated the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that each region would have to reduce to achieve the TMDL goals for their respective major river basins. This process also took into account that the regions contributing the most pound-per-pound nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment had to make the greatest effort toward achieving water-quality goals. But it was an extraordinary collaboration between multiple groups within each of the seven jurisdictions to develop the required Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP)—the written proof they would rise to the task to meet these reduction goals by 2025, allowing the districts 15 years for the process. After drafts and revisions, EPA approved each district's WIP submission as sufficient action to tackle the reduction goals. Some of the practices of the individual WIPs include tighter point-source restrictions, enforcement of agriculture best practices and regulatory code violations, new wastewater and stormwater upgrades, stream management, forestry practices, and much more. The goals of the TMDL as expressed by EPA are "to ensure all practices necessary to fully restore the Bay and its tidal waters are in place, with at least 60% of the actions taken by 2017." However, it's the day-to-day work by people down in the trenches, from "a lot of NGOs, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the communities, university studies, and other partners," that will get this all to work, Stack says. "They have so many practices that have to be put in the ground, so many programs and policies that have to be done at the local level, it is going to be difficult to meet these." Nonetheless, Stack is optimistic in the face of the enormous challenges. "If in ten years we don't meet those targets, still, the efforts and number of practices will be unprecedented in scale."

LONG BEFORE BOATS, BOARDWALKS, AND SOFT ICE CREAM

The Chesapeake Bay's history of attracting humans to its bountiful cornucopia of food and natural resources starts thousands of years before the extensive beaches and boardwalks, industry, and development that occupy much of today's bay region. Some of the fi rst "watermen" harvesting bay seafood and oysters were the then-local Algonquian and Susquehannock people who, historians believe, called the water "Chesepiook" to mean "great shellfi sh bay." By the 1600s, after several European explorers recorded their bay visits, Virginia's Jamestown colony and Maryland's St. Mary's City were established, which were the fi rst entree to settlement. Over the next several centuries, the bay waters and the region's spectacular forests and rich soils were exploited to provide power for wood and stone mills, support tobacco planting, and encourage development. With the commerce centers in Annapolis, Richmond, Washington DC, and Baltimore, the population around the bay grew to more than a million by the beginning of the 1800s. Toward the end of the 19th century, the bay and its region were showing the effects of being a round-the-clock environmental workhorse with vastly reduced wildlife populations—a result of hunting and over-fi shing, and a staggering 15 million bushels of bay oysters harvested annually. The problems were further compounded by pollution from smokestacks, deforestation, and industrial and human waste clogging and contaminating the waterways. While Baltimore was notably last of US cities to create sewer lines, it did, however, become the first to establish wastewater treatment plants in an effort to save the bay oysters that now numbered only 1% of their original population.Today's oyster population is a mere 0.3% of its early 1800s abundance.
Leveling the Playing Field Now, five years since the TMDL's implementation, the bay is slowly showing progress in both the watershed and in the collaborative partnerships at work among the districts. "There was a sense we were on the right path," says Jon Capacasa, P.E., director of the Water Protection Division for EPA's Region III, which has oversight of the Mid-Atlantic region and the Chesapeake Bay area. He recalls the agency's involvement in 2010 to launch the coordination of bay restoration efforts as a "pretty important moment for all of us." He says, "Each of the six states and DC developed watershed implementation plans that outline strategies, nutrients, and sediments. The EPA ratified those in the TMDL, so pollution-reduction efforts are driven by what the states do." EPA's role, he says, is to level the playing field for the bay states and, as shown by quarterly check-in calls and annual written progress reporting, there is "a sense we're on the right path." "Most folks welcome the TMDL and the accountability framework," says Capacasa. "We're getting excellent cooperation and localities, by and large, agree we're on track to meet our goals." But the region is ever-changing. "We're constantly taking stock of land use and change in population and pressures on the ecosystems. We keep track of agriculture, where, for example, there is more biofuel production from more corn production; this has an effect on demand of nutrient control.'" And the overarching scheme of the Bay TMDL allows for what he describes as managing stormwater on a watershed basis, "by looking beyond the political boundaries of the solutions." But success requires each sector—agriculture, urban stormwater, wastewater—do its own part to offset nutrient loads. Capacasa says that stakeholders "are on board to meeting the job, and they recognize that by hanging together in meeting the TMDL they have the best chance to restore the bay." [caption id="attachment_25728" align="alignright" width="300"]
Credit: Adrian Jones, IAN Image Library (ian.umces.edu/imagelibrary)Fish kill in Choptank River, suspected to be caused by atoxic algal bloom entrapped in floating seagrass[/caption] The Bay Report Card: Nowhere to Go but Up Professor Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, writes a report card each year measuring the progress of a very unique "student." Dennison and his team develop the annual Bay Report Card, using data from monitoring of air and water quality to assign what amounts to a "health grade" status. The estuary received a "C" in May 2014, which was the same as 2012, but reflected an improvement over the "D+" in 2011. While bay health is just hovering at mediocre levels, Dennison is nonetheless encouraged by the TMDL effort, which he says is largely due to the strategic managing of EPA oversight. "I think the essence is, it is a new way of doing business." He says that by taking what was a mostly voluntary effort and "putting it into a regulatory piece is proving very important." But progress is a push-pull scenario. "What we've got are two different trajectories—improvements and degradation," he says. "We've made significant strides in sewage upgrades, and we can see the ecosystem response. Within a couple of years there has been a resurgence of aquatic grasses, improved water clarity, and a whole cascade of ecological improvements." And thanks to prior regulation on smokestacks and tailpipes, Dennison says, new long-term data on air quality indicates that air moving east from the Ohio Valley now has less atmospheric nitrogen. [caption id="attachment_25729" align="alignleft" width="300"]
Credit: Jane Thomas, IAN Image Library (www.ian.umces.edu/imagelibrary)Poultry houses on the Chester River[/caption] "We're seeing the positive impacts with less nitrate input in the western portion of the bay and streams, and improved air quality. Where we're not making progress is on stormwater," he says, citing two sources as the culprit: farming and urban development. "We're seeing degrading conditions with urban expansion and intensified agriculture. We're very concerned about ongoing stormwater runoff, and we're not just yet turning the corner on that. "Where we had upgrades on the western shore with forests getting better, we also have an urban growth corridor and things are getting worse." Dennison adds that the big crop, "homeowners lawns," is a huge contributor to runoff contaminants: "Homeowners easily over-fertilize and over-pesticide their properties to maintain green lawns, and when it rains they don't realize this all ends up in the bay." Commercial markets are now responding to concern over drought, conservation, and water-quality issues in the last several years, and Dennison says he's seeing a new shift in urban design and business ingenuity in urban stormwater runoff control via pervious pavers, green roads, and other innovations "that are engineered to move water off the land and into groundwater." Computer Modeling Predictions—Still Not Real Life On April 6, 2015, the Chesapeake Bay Program released a report on the progress of the TMDL. Based on computer simulations and input from watershed district reports, the program reported a drop in pollution from 2009, including a 6% decrease in nitrogen, an 18% decrease in phosphorus, and a 4% drop in sediment. But between 2013 and 2014 there was a 2% rise in nitrogen and sediment loads, which the program attributes to shifts in watershed agriculture toward increased corn plantings that began in 2007. Scott Phillips, Chesapeake Bay coordinator at the US Geologic Survey (USGS), says his agency has another perspective. He talks about the findings of the USGS Chesapeake Bay Eastern Shore Study released March 12, 2015, that sees bay health through a different lens, sparking concerns. Phillips says the EPA TMDL project "is looking at projected reductions at nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment by using essentially what states submit, and the practices put in." While the 2014 data from the TMDL computer modeling paints a positive picture of nitrogen and phosphorus reductions, the findings of the recent USGS study are less rosy. The former cites load reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment as making progress toward meeting the target reduction goals for 2017; he USGS says phosphorus concentrations in the eastern shore region, which were reported already on target, are actually increasing in those bay tributaries. The USGS also found the shortfall on nitrogen goals so substantial that the report says it would take a heroic two and a half times the proposed load reduction to meet targets for 2017 and 2025. The USGS report says these substantially worsening nitrate and phosphorus levels are reported to be among the highest in the nation. The differences between the modeling approach and the getting-your-feet-wet approach of the USGS, which uses actual water-quality monitoring data, clearly demonstrates the "need for a broader menu of scientific measures when trying to look at progress," says Phillips. So, the big question is, why has phosphorus increased 48% in the last 10 years when farmers are making concerted efforts to reduce nutrients? Part of the answer is simply that the soil is just worn out. [caption id="attachment_25730" align="alignright" width="200"]
Credit: Anne Arundel CountyAnne Arundel County restoration efforts[/caption] Millions of Broilers Later The eastern shore of Maryland is the largest US producer of poultry broilers, and if the land could speak it would protest at having to support more than 600 million broilers a year, up from 4 million a year a century ago. But in fact, the land is speaking, and protesting soundly. Poultry manure, an abundant and free source of fertilizer, is spread on agricultural land along with commercial fertilizers, but it's more than is needed by crops, and once the excess accumulates in groundwater, it travels in streams toward the Chesapeake Bay. The result is that excessive fertilizers are competing with—and in many cases winning—over the efforts of farmers who are implementing best practices to manage nutrients. "Soils of the eastern shore are so saturated, even if you put everything in practice today and never raised another chicken, it would take years for conditions to improve," surmises Phillips. While the phosphorus levels were reported by the EPA TMDL in 2014 as being on target, this figure was based on the US Department of Agriculture's 2012 census of the watershed agricultural markets, which that found fewer chickens are being raised; this scenario would produce less phosphorus-rich manure. However, the USGS says other data sources find that chickens may be growing larger, and thereby potentially producing more manure, and in heavily concentrated production areas such as Maryland's eastern shore, this would add more phosphorus to the already well-saturated soils and negatively impact the bay. Dennison confirms that the USGS study was well done. "It presents unequivocal and compelling data sets, and it is a real important moment in getting close to the source and dealing with the issue of overabundance of nutrients that continue to degrade our system." While the USGS figures dampen the TMDL progress report, EPA says the data are helpful. By providing scientific research to the TMDL project, the USGS helps the watershed partners understand the nutrient and sediment trends and partner with stakeholders to more strategically target specific regions that need management and conservation. As an example, the discrepancy in nitrogen that the USGS determined was from Pennsylvania's agriculture sector, where excessive farm runoff has caused an increase in nutrient load since 2009, indicates that state would need to achieve an 18.7 million pound reduction to reach its 2017 goal, more than two and a half times the original load reduction. Snapshot of Impressive WIPs Milestones Half a million people live in Anne Arundel County, located midway between Washington DC and Baltimore and home to Annapolis, Maryland's state capital. Erik Michelson, administrator of the Anne Arundel County Watershed Protection and Administration Program says that when EPA appropriated state and local government funds for the TMDL, he was "happy to finally have some financial resources to address stormwater problems." These funds, he says, have been instrumental in helping the county "develop some innovative stormwater restoration strategies," but also provide solutions to a history of septic and wastewater problems that have been plaguing the area for years. "In terms of breakdown in acreage, the county is 40 to 45% rural, 30% suburban, and the remainder is suburban/rural around Baltimore city." He says the WIPs in the TMDL program focus on a three-part strategy: stormwater, wastewater, and septic. "We submitted our plan in 2012, and it centers around primary features that include the upgrade of the county's seven wastewater treatment plants, enhanced nutrient removal strategies, and addressing the pollutants from septic loading." [caption id="attachment_25731" align="alignleft" width="300"]
Credit: Anne Arundel CountyA refurbished outfall in Anne Arundel County[/caption] In its interim status report, the county submits an admirable record of planning and implementing many goals so far, with more to come. These include street sweeping, stream restoration, culvert and storm drain rehabilitation, tree planting, impervious surface removals, reducing permitting times for local restoration projects, grants for property owners to install septic nitrogen-reducing units, and more. Michelson credits the county's success in moving toward numerous goals to the intervention of the federal government—EPA—to implement the TMDL. "When I think back, given the track record of the voluntary approach in getting jurisdictions to do it, and the lack of success, this really represented a shift in the philosophy. The reality is, we all have to pull together, but without federal intervention as an overarching approach, it's unlikely you'll get any individual district to do a disproportionate share. It's the notion that everyone [in the watershed] is involved, and that everyone has a stake; their own mess is important to take care of." He says that the county has an obligation to meet the TMDL and "that's a tall order, but it's a recognition we're trying to make up for not having kept up with the infrastructure needs." Some of the infrastructure projects to be completed by the end of this year include more than 400 stormwater pipe outfall retrofits, 128 pond retrofits, street sweeping of up to 266 miles of roadway, and cleanup of 17,000 inlets and catch basins. In addition, tree planting and reforestation will take place on 60 acres, which includes streets and forested land in buffer zones. More than 100,000 linear feet of stream restoration projects are also programmed and slated to break ground during 2015. Getting Public Participation to Work Another county initiative is creating individual watershed steward appointments through training programs; the Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA) is helping with implementation. This group will be installing 55 rain barrels and nine cisterns to capture more than 5,000 gallons of water during each major rain event, and the WSA also plans to restore more than 14,353 linear feet of street and nearly 5 acres of wetland, in addition to creating 10,500 square feet of tidal marsh/living shoreline. "Creating more public awareness and education is also a huge piece of getting the work done." While no one wants to talk about raising taxes or paying more for utilities, Michelson says, "The polling results show that most people don't even see stormwater as pollution; there hasn't been a lot of time spent educating people on the nature of the problem. It's hard to convey this complicated subject without making people's eyes glaze over. I talk to 20 or 30 people at a time, and I start my presentations with why it [stormwater] is a problem and here's what we're proposing to do." He says once he explains the "basic information about stormwater fees, and the accountability of everyone to help clean up the bay, people understand." He adds, "I would mention that obviously a lot of money is being spent on all this TMDL work, and we feel strongly that in monitoring the impact, the idea is to be spending money in scientifically targeted fashion to understand what we're doing, rather than scattershot monitoring. We want the public to see the results of money being spent. "It's important to have a high degree of scientific rigor, and hopefully we're standing up to the scrutiny of researchers who are working in the field." And One More Thing to Think About Nearly every expert agrees that the Chesapeake Bay has survived up to this point, dutifully serving up its benefits for the increasing human population that for hundreds of years has exploited its resources. While this era might be a better-late-than-never turning point, the restoration efforts are compounded by one more unanticipated factor, which, Dennison says, adds to the nutrients and sediments challenges. "For as much effort and what we do now, climate change is going to put more pressure on restoration and is the component most likely to affect the quality of the environment. The bay is getting higher, saltier, and warmer, and it is getting more variable with drought years punctuated by years with hurricane and severe storms. "In a century, it's raised about one foot, and 2 degrees higher in temperature. All of these are convergent ­factors as the rates are accelerating and invading the tidal marshes." At the end of the day, the bay restoration work is expensive, labor intensive, and challenging. The TMDL, with its diverse partnerships throughout the watershed, may not see its objectives for another decade past the 2025 deadline, but experts voice the unanimous alternative that if we did nothing, our opportunity for recovery and resilience would be lost. 

Writing the Menu for the Historic Pollution Diet
After decades of restoration efforts by each of the watershed’s seven individual districts, Bill Stack, deputy director of programs at the Center for Watershed Protection in Ellicott City, MD, says, “The bottom line is, there just wasn’t sufficient progress on the ground.”

EPA calls the Chesapeake Bay TMDL a “historic and comprehensive ‘pollution diet’ with rigorous accountability measures to initiate sweeping actions to restore clean water in the Chesapeake Bay and region’s streams, creeks, and rivers.” Each region in the huge watershed has specific challenges to meet in bringing their respective waters into compliance with the US Clean Water Act’s 1972 environmental goals that require all the nation’s water quality be “fishable” and “swimmable.”

When waters are impaired by pollution and contaminants, a TMDL must be developed by looking at all sources of contaminants, and management strategies developed to reduce those contaminants to acceptable levels. In essence a TMDL defines how much pollution the water can receive and still be ‘fishable and swimmable,” or, in other words it’s a little bit like “how much junk food can you eat and still be healthy.”

Building Stewardship and Trust
Stack relates the key backstory points. “Prior to my current role here at CWP, I managed the surface water program and stormwater permits for the city of Baltimore and was also involved in environmental efforts of tributary restoration as chairman of the Patapsco Back River team.”

He recalls that at the time, the bay was listed as “impaired for dissolved oxygen [DO], and the EPA decided to allow states in the watershed to try and meet [nutrient] load reduction targets through voluntary activities.

“This tributary strategy effort of which the Patapsco team was a member was made up of volunteers and local government, agriculture, urban groups, you name it,” he says. “It was a very effective process in communication, in building stewardship and trust between the various parties.”

DEFINING THE POLLUTION DIET

EPA says the TMDL—pollution diet—identifies the maximum amount of a pollutant the waterway can receive and still meet water-quality standards. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is the largest and most complex of the agency’s more than 40,000 TMDL projects completed across the US. EPA reports that it is a combination of 92 smaller TMDLs for individual Chesapeake Bay tidal segments and is designed to achieve signifi cant reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution. This includes pollution limits that are sufficient to meet state water-quality standards for dissolved oxygen, water clarity, underwater bay grasses, and chlorophyll-a, an indicator of algae levels.

Begun in 2010, the TMDL has the goal “to ensure all practices necessary to fully restore the Bay and its tidal waters are in place, with at least 60% of the actions taken by 2017.” EPA monitors the progress of individual districts biannually to measure how the jurisdiction is doing in reaching the two-year milestones so that by 2025 the goals have been reached.

While progress was made in varying degrees, it wasn’t enough, and he recalls that eventually there was a third-party lawsuit that forced EPA to get involved and bring all the jurisdictions and stakeholders under its monitoring authority toward a common goal with specific timeline benchmarks. This process was further motivated by President Obama’s Executive Order 13508 on May 12, 2009, directing the federal government to lead a renewed restoration and protection effort for the bay.

“What this program meant was that each watershed state would have accountability to meet pollution reduction milestones set by the EPA,” explains Stack.

The reductions were developed by the agency after much reviewing of data that summarized various bay water-quality monitoring resources, point- and nonpoint-source pollutants, and other factors. EPA calculated the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that each region would have to reduce to achieve the TMDL goals for their respective major river basins.

This process also took into account that the regions contributing the most pound-per-pound nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment had to make the greatest effort toward achieving water-quality goals.

But it was an extraordinary collaboration between multiple groups within each of the seven jurisdictions to develop the required Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP)—the written proof they would rise to the task to meet these reduction goals by 2025, allowing the districts 15 years for the process.

After drafts and revisions, EPA approved each district’s WIP submission as sufficient action to tackle the reduction goals. Some of the practices of the individual WIPs include tighter point-source restrictions, enforcement of agriculture best practices and regulatory code violations, new wastewater and stormwater upgrades, stream management, forestry practices, and much more.

The goals of the TMDL as expressed by EPA are “to ensure all practices necessary to fully restore the Bay and its tidal waters are in place, with at least 60% of the actions taken by 2017.”

However, it’s the day-to-day work by people down in the trenches, from “a lot of NGOs, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the communities, university studies, and other partners,” that will get this all to work, Stack says.

“They have so many practices that have to be put in the ground, so many programs and policies that have to be done at the local level, it is going to be difficult to meet these.”

Nonetheless, Stack is optimistic in the face of the enormous challenges. “If in ten years we don’t meet those targets, still, the efforts and number of practices will be unprecedented in scale.”

LONG BEFORE BOATS, BOARDWALKS, AND SOFT ICE CREAM

The Chesapeake Bay’s history of attracting humans to its bountiful cornucopia of food and natural resources starts thousands of years before the extensive beaches and boardwalks, industry, and development that occupy much of today’s bay region. Some of the fi rst “watermen” harvesting bay seafood and oysters were the then-local Algonquian and Susquehannock people who, historians believe, called the water “Chesepiook” to mean “great shellfi sh bay.”

By the 1600s, after several European explorers recorded their bay visits, Virginia’s Jamestown colony and Maryland’s St. Mary’s City were established, which were the fi rst entree to settlement. Over the next several centuries, the bay waters and the region’s spectacular forests and rich soils were exploited to provide power for wood and stone mills, support tobacco planting, and encourage development. With the commerce centers in Annapolis, Richmond, Washington DC, and Baltimore, the population around the bay grew to more than a million by the beginning of the 1800s.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the bay and its region were showing the effects of being a round-the-clock environmental workhorse with vastly reduced wildlife populations—a result of hunting and over-fi shing, and a staggering 15 million bushels of bay oysters harvested annually. The problems were further compounded by pollution from smokestacks, deforestation, and industrial and human waste clogging and contaminating the waterways. While Baltimore was notably last of US cities to create sewer lines, it did, however, become the first to establish wastewater treatment plants in an effort to save the bay oysters that now numbered only 1% of their original population.Today’s oyster population is a mere 0.3% of its early 1800s abundance.

Leveling the Playing Field
Now, five years since the TMDL’s implementation, the bay is slowly showing progress in both the watershed and in the collaborative partnerships at work among the districts.

“There was a sense we were on the right path,” says Jon Capacasa, P.E., director of the Water Protection Division for EPA’s Region III, which has oversight of the Mid-Atlantic region and the Chesapeake Bay area. He recalls the agency’s involvement in 2010 to launch the coordination of bay restoration efforts as a “pretty important moment for all of us.”

He says, “Each of the six states and DC developed watershed implementation plans that outline strategies, nutrients, and sediments. The EPA ratified those in the TMDL, so pollution-reduction efforts are driven by what the states do.”

EPA’s role, he says, is to level the playing field for the bay states and, as shown by quarterly check-in calls and annual written progress reporting, there is “a sense we’re on the right path.”

“Most folks welcome the TMDL and the accountability framework,” says Capacasa. “We’re getting excellent cooperation and localities, by and large, agree we’re on track to meet our goals.”

But the region is ever-changing. “We’re constantly taking stock of land use and change in population and pressures on the ecosystems. We keep track of agriculture, where, for example, there is more biofuel production from more corn production; this has an effect on demand of nutrient control.'”

And the overarching scheme of the Bay TMDL allows for what he describes as managing stormwater on a watershed basis, “by looking beyond the political boundaries of the solutions.”

But success requires each sector—agriculture, urban stormwater, wastewater—do its own part to offset nutrient loads. Capacasa says that stakeholders “are on board to meeting the job, and they recognize that by hanging together in meeting the TMDL they have the best chance to restore the bay.”

Credit: Adrian Jones, IAN Image Library (ian.umces.edu/imagelibrary)
Fish kill in Choptank River, suspected to be caused by a
toxic algal bloom entrapped in floating seagrass

The Bay Report Card: Nowhere to Go but Up
Professor Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, writes a report card each year measuring the progress of a very unique “student.” Dennison and his team develop the annual Bay Report Card, using data from monitoring of air and water quality to assign what amounts to a “health grade” status. The estuary received a “C” in May 2014, which was the same as 2012, but reflected an improvement over the “D+” in 2011.

While bay health is just hovering at mediocre levels, Dennison is nonetheless encouraged by the TMDL effort, which he says is largely due to the strategic managing of EPA oversight.

“I think the essence is, it is a new way of doing business.” He says that by taking what was a mostly voluntary effort and “putting it into a regulatory piece is proving very important.”

But progress is a push-pull scenario. “What we’ve got are two different trajectories—improvements and degradation,” he says.

“We’ve made significant strides in sewage upgrades, and we can see the ecosystem response. Within a couple of years there has been a resurgence of aquatic grasses, improved water clarity, and a whole cascade of ecological improvements.” And thanks to prior regulation on smokestacks and tailpipes, Dennison says, new long-term data on air quality indicates that air moving east from the Ohio Valley now has less atmospheric nitrogen.

Credit: Jane Thomas, IAN Image Library (www.ian.umces.edu/imagelibrary)
Poultry houses on the Chester River

“We’re seeing the positive impacts with less nitrate input in the western portion of the bay and streams, and improved air quality. Where we’re not making progress is on stormwater,” he says, citing two sources as the culprit: farming and urban development.

“We’re seeing degrading conditions with urban expansion and intensified agriculture. We’re very concerned about ongoing stormwater runoff, and we’re not just yet turning the corner on that.

“Where we had upgrades on the western shore with forests getting better, we also have an urban growth corridor and things are getting worse.”

Dennison adds that the big crop, “homeowners lawns,” is a huge contributor to runoff contaminants: “Homeowners easily over-fertilize and over-pesticide their properties to maintain green lawns, and when it rains they don’t realize this all ends up in the bay.”

Commercial markets are now responding to concern over drought, conservation, and water-quality issues in the last several years, and Dennison says he’s seeing a new shift in urban design and business ingenuity in urban stormwater runoff control via pervious pavers, green roads, and other innovations “that are engineered to move water off the land and into groundwater.”

Computer Modeling Predictions—Still Not Real Life
On April 6, 2015, the Chesapeake Bay Program released a report on the progress of the TMDL. Based on computer simulations and input from watershed district reports, the program reported a drop in pollution from 2009, including a 6% decrease in nitrogen, an 18% decrease in phosphorus, and a 4% drop in sediment. But between 2013 and 2014 there was a 2% rise in nitrogen and sediment loads, which the program attributes to shifts in watershed agriculture toward increased corn plantings that began in 2007.

Scott Phillips, Chesapeake Bay coordinator at the US Geologic Survey (USGS), says his agency has another perspective. He talks about the findings of the USGS Chesapeake Bay Eastern Shore Study released March 12, 2015, that sees bay health through a different lens, sparking concerns.

Phillips says the EPA TMDL project “is looking at projected reductions at nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment by using essentially what states submit, and the practices put in.”

While the 2014 data from the TMDL computer modeling paints a positive picture of nitrogen and phosphorus reductions, the findings of the recent USGS study are less rosy. The former cites load reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment as making progress toward meeting the target reduction goals for 2017; he USGS says phosphorus concentrations in the eastern shore region, which were reported already on target, are actually increasing in those bay tributaries. The USGS also found the shortfall on nitrogen goals so substantial that the report says it would take a heroic two and a half times the proposed load reduction to meet targets for 2017 and 2025.

The USGS report says these substantially worsening nitrate and phosphorus levels are reported to be among the highest in the nation.

The differences between the modeling approach and the getting-your-feet-wet approach of the USGS, which uses actual water-quality monitoring data, clearly demonstrates the “need for a broader menu of scientific measures when trying to look at progress,” says Phillips.

So, the big question is, why has phosphorus increased 48% in the last 10 years when farmers are making concerted efforts to reduce nutrients?

Part of the answer is simply that the soil is just worn out.

Credit: Anne Arundel County
Anne Arundel County restoration efforts

Millions of Broilers Later
The eastern shore of Maryland is the largest US producer of poultry broilers, and if the land could speak it would protest at having to support more than 600 million broilers a year, up from 4 million a year a century ago. But in fact, the land is speaking, and protesting soundly.

Poultry manure, an abundant and free source of fertilizer, is spread on agricultural land along with commercial fertilizers, but it’s more than is needed by crops, and once the excess accumulates in groundwater, it travels in streams toward the Chesapeake Bay. The result is that excessive fertilizers are competing with—and in many cases winning—over the efforts of farmers who are implementing best practices to manage nutrients.

“Soils of the eastern shore are so saturated, even if you put everything in practice today and never raised another chicken, it would take years for conditions to improve,” surmises Phillips.

While the phosphorus levels were reported by the EPA TMDL in 2014 as being on target, this figure was based on the US Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census of the watershed agricultural markets, which that found fewer chickens are being raised; this scenario would produce less phosphorus-rich manure. However, the USGS says other data sources find that chickens may be growing larger, and thereby potentially producing more manure, and in heavily concentrated production areas such as Maryland’s eastern shore, this would add more phosphorus to the already well-saturated soils and negatively impact the bay.

Dennison confirms that the USGS study was well done. “It presents unequivocal and compelling data sets, and it is a real important moment in getting close to the source and dealing with the issue of overabundance of nutrients that continue to degrade our system.” While the USGS figures dampen the TMDL progress report, EPA says the data are helpful. By providing scientific research to the TMDL project, the USGS helps the watershed partners understand the nutrient and sediment trends and partner with stakeholders to more strategically target specific regions that need management and conservation.

As an example, the discrepancy in nitrogen that the USGS determined was from Pennsylvania’s agriculture sector, where excessive farm runoff has caused an increase in nutrient load since 2009, indicates that state would need to achieve an 18.7 million pound reduction to reach its 2017 goal, more than two and a half times the original load reduction.

Snapshot of Impressive WIPs Milestones
Half a million people live in Anne Arundel County, located midway between Washington DC and Baltimore and home to Annapolis, Maryland’s state capital. Erik Michelson, administrator of the Anne Arundel County Watershed Protection and Administration Program says that when EPA appropriated state and local government funds for the TMDL, he was “happy to finally have some financial resources to address stormwater problems.”

These funds, he says, have been instrumental in helping the county “develop some innovative stormwater restoration strategies,” but also provide solutions to a history of septic and wastewater problems that have been plaguing the area for years.

“In terms of breakdown in acreage, the county is 40 to 45% rural, 30% suburban, and the remainder is suburban/rural around Baltimore city.” He says the WIPs in the TMDL program focus on a three-part strategy: stormwater, wastewater, and septic.

“We submitted our plan in 2012, and it centers around primary features that include the upgrade of the county’s seven wastewater treatment plants, enhanced nutrient removal strategies, and addressing the pollutants from septic loading.”

Credit: Anne Arundel County
A refurbished outfall in Anne Arundel County

In its interim status report, the county submits an admirable record of planning and implementing many goals so far, with more to come. These include street sweeping, stream restoration, culvert and storm drain rehabilitation, tree planting, impervious surface removals, reducing permitting times for local restoration projects, grants for property owners to install septic nitrogen-reducing units, and more.

Michelson credits the county’s success in moving toward numerous goals to the intervention of the federal government—EPA—to implement the TMDL.

“When I think back, given the track record of the voluntary approach in getting jurisdictions to do it, and the lack of success, this really represented a shift in the philosophy. The reality is, we all have to pull together, but without federal intervention as an overarching approach, it’s unlikely you’ll get any individual district to do a disproportionate share. It’s the notion that everyone [in the watershed] is involved, and that everyone has a stake; their own mess is important to take care of.”

He says that the county has an obligation to meet the TMDL and “that’s a tall order, but it’s a recognition we’re trying to make up for not having kept up with the infrastructure needs.”

Some of the infrastructure projects to be completed by the end of this year include more than 400 stormwater pipe outfall retrofits, 128 pond retrofits, street sweeping of up to 266 miles of roadway, and cleanup of 17,000 inlets and catch basins. In addition, tree planting and reforestation will take place on 60 acres, which includes streets and forested land in buffer zones. More than 100,000 linear feet of stream restoration projects are also programmed and slated to break ground during 2015.

Getting Public Participation to Work
Another county initiative is creating individual watershed steward appointments through training programs; the Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA) is helping with implementation. This group will be installing 55 rain barrels and nine cisterns to capture more than 5,000 gallons of water during each major rain event, and the WSA also plans to restore more than 14,353 linear feet of street and nearly 5 acres of wetland, in addition to creating 10,500 square feet of tidal marsh/living shoreline.

“Creating more public awareness and education is also a huge piece of getting the work done.” While no one wants to talk about raising taxes or paying more for utilities, Michelson says, “The polling results show that most people don’t even see stormwater as pollution; there hasn’t been a lot of time spent educating people on the nature of the problem. It’s hard to convey this complicated subject without making people’s eyes glaze over. I talk to 20 or 30 people at a time, and I start my presentations with why it [stormwater] is a problem and here’s what we’re proposing to do.”

He says once he explains the “basic information about stormwater fees, and the accountability of everyone to help clean up the bay, people understand.”

He adds, “I would mention that obviously a lot of money is being spent on all this TMDL work, and we feel strongly that in monitoring the impact, the idea is to be spending money in scientifically targeted fashion to understand what we’re doing, rather than scattershot monitoring. We want the public to see the results of money being spent.

“It’s important to have a high degree of scientific rigor, and hopefully we’re standing up to the scrutiny of researchers who are working in the field.”

And One More Thing to Think About
Nearly every expert agrees that the Chesapeake Bay has survived up to this point, dutifully serving up its benefits for the increasing human population that for hundreds of years has exploited its resources. While this era might be a better-late-than-never turning point, the restoration efforts are compounded by one more unanticipated factor, which, Dennison says, adds to the nutrients and sediments challenges.

“For as much effort and what we do now, climate change is going to put more pressure on restoration and is the component most likely to affect the quality of the environment. The bay is getting higher, saltier, and warmer, and it is getting more variable with drought years punctuated by years with hurricane and severe storms.

“In a century, it’s raised about one foot, and 2 degrees higher in temperature. All of these are convergent ­factors as the rates are accelerating and invading the tidal marshes.”

At the end of the day, the bay restoration work is expensive, labor intensive, and challenging. The TMDL, with its diverse partnerships throughout the watershed, may not see its objectives for another decade past the 2025 deadline, but experts voice the unanimous alternative that if we did nothing, our opportunity for recovery and resilience would be lost. 
About the Author

Barbara Hesselgrave

Barbara Hesselgrave is a writer specializing in environmental topics.

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