New Report: Chesapeake Bay’s Health Threats Need Federal Remedy

Congressional Agenda Would Complement President’s Plan to Save the Bay

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 8, 2009) -- A report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council compiles the numerous threats facing the Chesapeake Bay and examines federal solutions to save this national treasure. This analysis comes on the heels of reports commissioned by President Obama to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and a draft bill circulated by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD.).

“It’s no secret the Chesapeake Bay has been struggling for decades to recover from a variety of threats to its health,” said Nancy Stoner, Co-Director of NRDC’s Water Program and co-author of the report. “What is less well known is that there are solutions --  many of which are finally underway.”

NRDC’s new report, Seizing a Watershed Opportunity: NRDC’s Plan to Clean Up the Chesapeake Bay and its Beaches, zooms in on the range of water quality issues in the Chesapeake Bay, including dangerous algal blooms, harmful bacteria in raw oysters, plastic bags in tributaries, and economic blows to the crabbing industry, and where they overlap. It also identifies key legislative solutions that would help to curtail many of these threats. 

The legislative agenda outlined in the report would complement and support Obama’s recent Executive Order for the Bay that commissioned seven recent reports -- including from the Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of Interior and Agriculture -- on how the federal government can help restore the health of the Chesapeake. By taking the steps outlined in Seizing a Watershed Opportunity, NRDC’s Stoner said, Congress can help the Executive Branch make real progress in cleaning up the historically troubled estuary.

“President Obama and his Administration are showing historic federal leadership to help clean up this national treasure,” said Stoner. “This report gives Congress a playbook so it could support efforts from the White House and deliver the one-two punch we need to finally make a real difference in saving the Bay.”

Seizing a Watershed Opportunity -- from the authors of this summer’s Testing the Waters, NRDC’s 19th annual nationwide beachwater quality report -- also includes beachwater quality information for the Chesapeake Bay, reporting that Bay beaches in 2008 had better water quality overall than the national average, but were significantly more polluted than their ocean counterparts on the Delmarva Peninsula. The report shows that Bay beaches with the dirtiest water, or highest percentage of water samples that exceeded health standards, included Fairview Beach in King George Co., Va. (32 percent), Kurtz Beach in Anne Arundel Co., Md., and Red Point Beach in Cecil Co., Md. (17 percent). Though the Bay beach with the dirtiest water was in Virginia, the 11 others in the dozen dirtiest were in Maryland.

The legislative agenda outlined in the report to help clean up the Bay includes the following actions, including adoption of:

  • Comprehensive climate change bill out of the Senate this year. Climate change -- from increased temperatures and more intense storms, to sea level rise – is expected to exacerbate a variety of problems in the Bay -- including nutrient pollution, dead zones and disease-causing pathogens. It threatens to change the Bay’s geography and hurt its shellfisheries. There is even concern it will lead to jellyfish blooms, according to the report.
  • TheChesapeake Bay Ecosystem Restoration Act, which includes an enforceable, cost-effective pollution banking program for nutrient reductions in the Bay. This will help address dead zones and harmful algal blooms, which are associated with fish kills and health problems in people, and have devastating economic impacts to the region’s fishing industries, as the report details. 
  • The Clean Coastal Environment and Public Health Act to provide money for more beachwater sampling in coastal states and to require faster testing methods for dangerous pathogens in the water that can make them sick. When there are health violations at Bay beaches, this bill will help swimmers find out before they dive in.
  • The Water Infrastructure Financing Act to provide increased federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure needs, including incentives for green infrastructure (which uses soil and vegetation to trap runoff). Stormwater runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Bay, and prevention is the best way to address it. This bill will help do just that to keep algae-causing nutrients, disease-causing pathogens, and toxins out of our water and away from our seafood.
  • Controls on highway runoff in the Federal Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act. Controls like vegetation buffers can help capture stormwater before it flows off of impervious highways into waterways, helping to decrease sediment, nutrients and other pollutants in the Bay that lead to beach and shellfishery closures. With almost 100,000 miles of federally funded highways contributing to this pollution in the Bay, this bill can help reduce it.

In addition to this Congressional agenda, the report identifies areas where the Obama Administration can strengthen its proposals to fulfill the President’s Executive Order by combating stormwater runoff and pollution from factory farms.These include calling on the EPA to increase controls on stormwater runoff, and require more use of low impact development techniques, which retain and filter rainwater where it falls, rather than letting it run off into waterways (i.e. green roofs made of absorbent vegetation and permeable pavement that allows water to penetrate the material).

The report also calls for EPA to revise the federal rule regulating manure pollution from factory farms, a.k.a. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which have dumped undocumented volumes of untreated animal waste into the watershed for decades, without effective regulation. EPA has committed to addressing this problem under the Executive Order, and the agency should do this by requiring all CAFOs to obtain permits and create manure management plans, according to the report.