A Worrisome Report Card for the Chesapeake Bay

This post was co-written with Alys Campaigne of Engage Strategies.

Today, the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of state and federal entities advised by a number of non-governmental folks, released its annual report card: the Bay Barometer.  Although there were a few scraps of good news, such improving wildlife habitat and significantly increased numbers of adult blue crabs, the picture is generally grim.  Despite decades of research and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, only 24% of the Program’s water quality goals have been met.  In particular, only 12% of the Bay plus its tidal tributaries meet dissolved oxygen standards aimed at supporting aquatic life.

Runoff from urban and suburban stormwater remains one of the worst pollution culprits, with growth in pollution from those areas significantly offsetting gains made elsewhere.  The message is clear: we must do more to reduce the pollution draining into the Bay.

Elements of this solution are hinted at in the report.  It notes that the Chesapeake Executive Council – which includes the governors of Bay states and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency –identified specific recovery milestones for the six Bay states and the District of Columbia, which it expected to achieve watershed-wide reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution (15.8 million pounds and 1.1 million pounds, respectively) by the end of 2011.  These kinds of quantifiable targets are useful, but they need teeth to succeed.

EPA can bare some teeth under existing law.  EPA will soon issue a proposed permit for the stormwater system in the District of Columbia, which the agency needs to ensure is a strong model of pollution prevention that can be duplicated elsewhere in the watershed.  The best tools to significantly reduce municipal stormwater pollution – a suite of techniques we call “green infrastructure” -- are well-known and must be integrated into stormwater permits.   Moreover, EPA is contemplating new rules on polluted runoff from large-scale animal feedlots, an action that will be critical for the Bay’s fate.  Strong new approaches to both of these sectors are long overdue.

But we can’t ignore another obvious hurdle to success: cost.  Severe budget shortfalls at the federal, state and local levels are forcing hard decisions about where to spend scarce public funds.  Despite compelling data that much more is needed to pay for the stormwater upgrades to restore the Bay, finding those funds will be difficult.

That’s one more reason why everyone in the watershed, from local governments, to homeowners, to farmers, should support enhancing the Clean Water Act to require improvements and to provide the tools to accomplish them.  Congress is presently considering the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act, which has been introduced by Senator Cardin and by Congressman Cummings.   The bill sets firm, enforceable targets for the key pollutants that degrade the Bay watershed, and institutes timelines for cleaning up the Bay and authorizes significant new federal investment and technical assistance to get there.  It also taps the power of an interstate market that will allow sources of pollution to forego expensive controls in one place if others can more affordably make the same reductions elsewhere.  A study by the World Resource Institute reports that this interstate trading market could cut stormwater compliance costs while generating $45-300 million a year (depending on different factors) for farmers who implement conservation practices (and sell any leftover credits) to protect water quality. 

In recent months, opponents of clean water have been raising a ruckus in opposition to the bill, suggesting that it will lead to a heavy-handed EPA coming in to manage the day-to-day operation of farms and other activities in the watershed.  This is absurd.  But, because the idea of enforceable rules is daunting to some folks who have grown accustomed to voluntary compliance, it is easy to scare people about what this bill will do.  In fact, the bill charges local authorities with the responsibility for meeting pollution reduction goals in the ways that make the most sense for their particular states.  The Bay Barometer reminds us once again that we can’t afford to wait to get this effort underway in earnest.