Chesapeake Bay: Better but not enough

Our view: Maryland and other states have reduced pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but meeting 2025 cleanup goals will require much greater sacrifice

The Chesapeake Bay Program hits the midway point this month in its efforts the clean up the nation’s largest estuary by 2025, and there is good news and bad news. The good is that the controls put in place by Maryland and other watershed states since 2009 have substantially reduced key pollutants including sediment, phosphorus and, to a lesser extent, nitrogen. The bad news is not just that nitrogen reduction failed to meet its 2017 target by quite a bit (15 million pounds) but that improvements to date represent what scientists call the “easy part.” The much more difficult targets are ahead, and one has to wonder whether political leaders are ready to meet them.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of where things stand in what’s often referred to as the Chesapeake Bay pollution “diet,” the EPA-led effort to make sure Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, New York and the District of Columbia are doing their fair share: Considerable progress has been made, but some partners (Maryland and Virginia, which most directly reap the benefits of a cleaner bay, for example) are doing much more than others (we’re looking at you, Pennsylvania). The Trump administration would like the program to go away (and has twice asked for it to be defunded), and certain Republican members of Congress like Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte would like to see it neutered as well and have tried to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of enforcement authority.

Meanwhile, it’s an election year, and while a lot of local politicians are extolling the virtues of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, they are rarely talking about what states should be doing to meet their 2025 targets. Here’s a hint: It can’t just be a matter of sticking to current practices and policies. In Maryland, a lot of the improvements to date can be attributed to one thing — sewage plant upgrades that have been mandated by the state and funded, in large part, by the so-called “flush tax” of the Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. era. With the exception of the delayed Back River upgrade, the bulk of those wastewater improvements have been done. As we noted earlier, it’s the tough stuff ahead.

And what should be next? Much of the improvements are going to have to come from urban storm water runoff and from agriculture, the areas where pollution has not been so well addressed as sewage. There are ample reasons why they haven’t. Such sources are what’s known as “non-point,” meaning they are defuse, rather than “point” or coming out of the end of a pipe like sewage effluent. It’s not one big solution, it requires a lot of small ones. And when environmentalists offered an equivalent of the flush tax to finance some of them, the resulting stormwater fee was ridiculed as a“rain tax” and made optional — and politically unpalatable — in certain subdivisions.

So that means requiring more in “green infrastructure” like rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavers and other projects that allow rain to slowly drain into the soil rather than be whisked away to creeks and tributaries carrying all kinds of soil, chemicals, animal waste and other pollution into the waterways that feed the Chesapeake. On the farming front, it probably means spending money a bit smarter — less on cover crops, for example, and more on targeted improvements like forested buffer strips or rotational grazing. And by “targeted,” we’re talking about identifying the worst polluting sites by river, creek or stream (perhaps even by individual farm) and making them a priority.

Needless to say, it takes a lot of permeable pavers and buffer strips to make headway. That won’t happen unless we can keep a laser-like focus on where the pollution is coming from and less on red herrings like the Conowingo Dam, which doesn’t generate pollution, it just doesn’t trap sediments as well as it did in the past. To date, the two main candidates to be Maryland’s governor the next four years aren’t offering realistic and specific plans to achieve these goals. From what we’ve seen, neither are most of the candidates running for the General Assembly. Voters will need to demand more, to question the candidates who knock on their doors or wave signs at the corner. We’ll even offer a template: Excuse me, but what do you intend to do to meet the TMDL 2025 Chesapeake Bay restoration targets beyond what’s been done to date? Don’t take a bunch of platitudes for an answer.

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