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Progress in Chesapeake Bay cleanup

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its latest evaluation of how Maryland and other jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are doing to meet their long-term water quality goals. The one-word summary? So-so. All six states and the District of Columbia are likely to fall short of 2017 benchmarks for nitrogen, a major pollutant.

But it's not really quite as bad as that. The EPA also finds those same states to be generally on track for next year's goals for phosphorus and sediment under what's known as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, often referred to as the "pollution diet" to which Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Delaware and West Virginia must adhere. The long-term goal demands a 20-25 percent reduction in pollutants flowing into the bay's streams and rivers by 2025 while the 2017 goal requires states to be more than halfway there.

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But, wait, the outlook is also worse. What's been accomplished so far has a lot to do with upgrades to sewage treatment plants, a relatively easy fix for states like Maryland and Virginia, and the far bigger challenge is to, among other things, spur Pennsylvania into greater action. The Keystone State has failed to meet its pollution diet goals in all categories, and it's not hard to see why — it's been lagging behind for years, with agriculture producing the majority of the problem.

Like all diets, the TMDL gives states reasons to moan, but they can't deny that it's also producing attractive results. There are already modest signs of progress — not just bureaucratic pronouncements but tangible changes that ordinary people can observe. Water clarity has improved noticeably. There's been a resurgence in aquatic grasses. Blue crab and striped bass populations are faring well. And while it may not have boaters dancing in the streets, scientists predict the Chesapeake's "dead zones" (areas where decaying algae blooms have sucked out the dissolved oxygen needed to sustain aquatic life) will be slightly smaller this summer.

The cleanup slog is hard, and it is long. Human activity has simply produced an abundance of ways to harm the environment, from the nastier ingredients of stormwater runoff to the chicken manure spread on farm fields that must ultimately be addressed. Here's a handy tip: If somebody, whether it's farmers, developers, bureaucrats or business owners, isn't screaming about how much they are being asked to sacrifice, it's a sure bet we're falling behind the pace.

In Baltimore, for instance, it's pretty clear that there's been a struggle to keep up — first in reducing sewage spills (a revised consent decree extends the deadline for the city to fix its massive sewage infrastructure problems to 2030, which is two decades after its original due date) and then to reduce stormwater runoff. The latter problem is one area where the city has financial resources — thanks to the so-called "rain tax" — but actually getting the needed work done (removing pavement, planting more vegetation to filter runoff, increasing street sweeping and other measures) has been a slow process. As The Sun's Scott Dance recently reported, Baltimore will more than double its annual stormwater spending beginning one week from Friday, but it still won't be removing blacktop fast enough to meet the EPA target.

This isn't reason to throw up one's hands and see the cleanup cause as hopeless, but it does require a clear-eyed view of the challenges ahead. Easily the biggest victory the Chesapeake Bay witnessed this year wasn't in any creek, stream, river or shipping channel but in a courtroom when the Supreme Court decided not to hear the appeal of the American Farm Bureau Federation's challenge to the TMDL and EPA's authority to keep the cleanup on track.

As long as the EPA remains involved — with its potential to penalize states that fall behind cleanup goals — there is hope for this fragile coalition and for the nation's largest estuary. Maryland can't force Pennsylvania farmers to reduce nutrient flows into the Susquehanna River, but the EPA can (and probably should if Harrisburg fails to act soon). Even with a so-so report card, there is reason to hold out hope that a better performance is ahead — thanks to the presence of an attentive supervisor with a few possible punishments up her sleeve.

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