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Chesapeake Bay cleanup 'blueprint' lacks long-term solutions

Scientists monitor fish in the Chesapeake Bay as an indicator of water quality.

To find symptoms of a warming climate, a Marylander only needs to skim the headlines. Last year, storms increasing in regularity and ferocity brought the most rainfall ever recorded to the Baltimore area. In waterfront communities such as Annapolis, Crisfield and Oxford, researchers estimate that land owners have lost millions of dollars in property value due to tidal flooding caused by rising sea levels. In Ellicott City, two floods in three years have devastated the historic district.

The increasing rain leads to more polluted stormwater from our cities and suburbs into the Chesapeake Bay. The warmer air also is increasing water temperature and beginning to stress aquatic habitats including eelgrass beds, where blue crabs, fish and other organisms live. And an influx of freshwater is changing the typical salinity levels throughout the bay, affecting the viability of rockfish and oysters.

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The good news is that Maryland officials are working to make the state's environment more resilient, thanks to the pollution reduction goals mandated as part of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. This ongoing work will reduce nutrient pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, that cause harmful algal blooms and help insulate the state against climate change. Healthy estuaries truly are our nation's first line of defense against climate change.

According to a federal report, 2015 saw fewer pollutants in rivers feeding the Chesapeake Bay.

This year, Maryland is updating its statewide blueprint to reduce pollutants by 2025 to meet federal requirements. The five other states and Washington, D.C., that make up the bay watershed are doing the same. Because of significant investments in wastewater and reducing runoff from agriculture, Maryland is on pace to meet its goals.

The bad news is Maryland's blueprint doesn't propose solutions that will sustain these goals over the long term. Instead, it continues the state's heavy reliance on costly annual management practices. The investment proposed for natural land improvements, such as wetland restoration, promoting oyster aquaculture, installing living shorelines and planting trees is far less than the state's annual spending on cover crops.

These natural land improvements are among the most cost-effective, long-term practices to filter pollutants from water and sequester carbon. Planting trees or restoring wetlands — and their myriad benefits — lasts much longer than a single growing season.

Farmers who wish to plant streamside forest buffers or transition crop land to permanent pasture for livestock should have the unequivocal support of state funding programs. A diversity of grasses grows in pastures, improving soil health and the amount of water the ground can hold. Streamside forest buffers soak up water, nitrogen and phosphorous, as well as help shade and cool waterways. Buffers and pasture also sequester carbon, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Maryland is also lagging in progress to reduce polluted stormwater runoff from cities and suburbs. The large counties and cities in the state are required to reduce runoff from a certain percentage of impervious surfaces within their borders. In places like Baltimore that means installing green roofs, bioswales near roadways, and infiltration ponds to trap water before it drains into the bay. But once again, jurisdictions are opting for expensive annual management practices like street sweeping while moving slowly to install more permanent solutions to reduce runoff.

Despite the need to reduce urban and suburban runoff, the state plans to relax stormwater reduction requirements. The blueprint draft expects Maryland's 10 most developed counties and Baltimore City to treat runoff from impervious surfaces at about half the pace required over the previous eight years. By 2025, stormwater is predicted to contribute more pollution to the bay than wastewater in Maryland. This trend could be reversed, however, if more residents demand greener cities and the state provides more assistance to jurisdictions to help them reduce stormwater.

Meanwhile, Maryland has been successful in upgrading its wastewater plants thanks to dedicated funding and the hard work of state and local officials. Marylanders pay a small fee on their water and sewer utility bills, which the state uses to pay off bonds for the upgrades. And while these enhancements are critical to improve the health of the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay, they haven't brought more green spaces, wetlands, trees or meadows to local communities and are far more expensive than natural land improvements.

We hope that as Maryland moves forward with its bay cleanup blueprint, it will put more of an emphasis on cost-effective, lasting natural filters that can provide long-term environmental benefits. Doing so will improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and fight the impacts of climate change.

Alison Prost (aprost@cbf.org) is the Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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