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Record rain sets back Maryland phosphorus pollution progress in 2019; state expects to recover

Storm clouds hover over the Chesapeake Bay Friday night just across the Severn River from Annapolis. Stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution in the bay, and Maryland missed the interim goals for reducing nitrogen and pollution.
Storm clouds hover over the Chesapeake Bay Friday night just across the Severn River from Annapolis. Stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution in the bay, and Maryland missed the interim goals for reducing nitrogen and pollution. (Dave Bastian)

When vehicle traffic was cut in half this spring because of coronavirus restrictions, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Assistant Director Erik Fisher said he could see two counties away when crossing the Bay Bridge.

The environment has been impaired so long, he said, people don’t have memories of what the Chesapeake Bay can be.

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“I can’t unsee the clean air I saw this spring,” he said. “I’m hopeful it has shown all of us around here what we have to gain.”

Progress toward achieving that gain didn’t meet expectations in Maryland last year.

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Maryland missed the interim target set by a decade ago by regional agreement to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of bay in 2019, but met the target for sediment runoff, the Chesapeake Bay Program reported Monday. The state put 50.84 million pounds of nitrogen into the bay in 2019, per computer model, when its goal was to not exceed 49.34 million pounds. The phosphorus load from Maryland for 2019 was 3.951 million pounds versus the goal of 3.79 million or less.

Jay Apperson, Maryland Department of Environment spokesperson, said that in 2017 Maryland agreed to additional responsibility, which moved the goalposts.

“The 2019 evaluation also included record-setting rainfall, which resulted in higher flows at our wastewater treatment plants, a key pollution reduction sector,” he wrote in a statement. “Even with increased flows, (wastewater treatment plant) upgrades continued to decrease nitrogen by more than 1 million pounds in 2019, but phosphorus increased.”

Between May 2018 and May 2019 more than 76 inches of rain fell in the Baltimore region, a record.

Prompted by “insufficient progress” toward a cleaner bay, the Environmental Protection Agency established the Total Maximum Daily Load in 2010, setting bay-wide pollution limits. The set a target of a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and a 20% reduction in sediment compared to 2009. Mechanisms to bring that change must be in place by 2025.

States in the watershed, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, are required to submit plans and progress reports showing how they would meet those goals.

The Chesapeake Bay Program reported Monday that computer simulations show an 11% reduction in nitrogen between 2009 and 2019, a 10% reduction in phosphorus and a 4% reduction in sediment watershed-wide.

The Bay Program said what is in place now, based on its modeling, would be sufficient to meet 100% of the sediment reduction goal, 49% of the phosphorus goal and 39% of the nitrogen goal. Phosphorus and nitrogen are two major bay pollutants, causing significant increases in algae that harm water quality, food resources and habitats by decreasing oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive.

Apperson said the state expects phosphorus loads to decrease in the coming years, putting them back on track.

Fisher said Maryland’s plan right now relies on improvements to wastewater treatment plants and in agriculture. Those changes need to be supplemented over time with changes in land use and a greater focus on managing stormwater, he said.

Stormwater runoff is a major source of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution in the bay, as every storm washes pollutants into ditches and storm drains, and eventually into rivers.

The speed of runoff from rooftops, streets and parking lots can cause the water to cut into the side of streams, knocking even more sediment into the water. One way to treat such a stream is to restore it by rebuilding a gently sloped “riparian buffer” around the stream, but that kind of work requires heavy equipment and millions in funding.

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Fisher said Maryland is pretty far behind in addressing stormwater runoff but said by addressing stormwater, communities will become more resilient to climate change, and will be able to bounce back more quickly after heavy storms.

Fisher said if deficiencies in Pennsylvania’s plan are not addressed, and if plans are not put in place to maintain the progress in all seven bay jurisdictions through population increases and climate change, the cleanup effort is at risk.

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