How the EPA is getting the Chesapeake Bay in shape

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - The Chesapeake Bay is an overweight, couch potato with a slow metabolism and high cholesterol.

Environmental scientists have spent three decades trying to get her into shape.

It’s the easiest, most common-sense analogy to make when referring to the health of The Bay.

“If the Chesapeake Bay was a human and you wanted to try to find out how healthy it was, looking at its cholesterol, blood pressure, any signs of abnormalities—we do that full-body scan about 14 times a year,” Richard Batiuk, an associate director for science for the Environmental Protection Agency, said.

“Like any human body, the Chesapeake Bay has a metabolism,” Batiuk said. “A certain amount of nutrients are necessary to feed the little microscopic plants, that then feed the little baby fish, that then feed bigger fish or crabs … but if you get too much of it, those nutrients continue to feed that algae and they’ll eat as much as they can and they’ll just expand out in green and brown water.”

EPA and state partners developed the TMDL , or total maximum daily load, in December 2010. The TMDL is a federally regulated pollution diet that tracks nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that pour into The Bay from six states and District of Columbia.

Think of it like a P90X workout, but instead of intense 90-day training, the EPA has outlined a 15-year plan to scale back on fatty foods that harm The Bay’s water quality. And, instead of shedding a couple pounds of fat, the TMDL aims to decrease several million pounds of pollutants.

The EPA, Region III, will release its 2012-2013 TMDL milestone assessment in May or June of this year. The assessment will grade states' efforts to adhere to the TMDL, in terms of how officials plan to meet aggressive water quality goals established by the EPA.

It’s no surprise that managing pollution levels across six states, Washington D.C., hundreds of waste water treatment plants, literally thousands of farmers and thousands of local municipalities is not an easy task.

“Essentially you’ve got to get six governors, a mayor and an EPA administrator to politically agree that there is a good scientific solution to do that,” Batiuk said. “The question is, how do we divide up that responsibility?”

The answer, a team of EPA representatives told ABC2 News, is awareness.

Why should I care about the TMDL of the Chesapeake Bay?

The Chesapeake Bay should be “swimmable, fishable and drinkable,” for millions of people, Tom Wenz, public affairs specialist for the EPA, said.

Millions.

Millions of people get their drinking water from the Potomac River, which flows into The Bay. The same goes for the Susquehanna to the north and ground water along the Eastern Shore. The TMDL calculation takes into account a growing population in the Mid-Atlantic, which currently stands at about 17.5 million in the area that directly affects The Bay.  

Property values near all bodies of water—streams, rivers and Bay-front property alike—are connected to water quality.

Fishing opportunities, commercial harvests, tourism, regional economies and local economies, which all equate monetarily to millions of dollars, are directly affected by the health of the Chesapeake.

“All those things that sort of make life in the Mid-Atlantic so unique,” Batiuk said.

Oh, and, improving the water quality of The Bay would bring down the cost of Maryland crabs.

How realistic are the standards of TMDL?

“You want a healthy Chesapeake Bay, but not a pristine one,” Batiuk said. “We’re looking for a Chesapeake Bay that can continue to support 17 million people. We’re not referring to, what we call a ‘John Smith Chesapeake,’ back when we may have only had several hundred thousand Native Americans here.”

Wenz added, “Back when you couldn’t even navigate the creeks because of the all the oysters. That’s real.”

The Chesapeake Bay is unlike crystal blue water you’d find in the Virgin Islands for example, because The Bay is naturally more productive with more fish per square mile.

To set The Bay straight on its diet plan, scientists simply determined:

What level of oxygen fish, crabs and oysters need to survive.

What level of light underwater grasses, much like house plants, need to survive.

How much harmful algae The Bay can withstand.

Why does the Federal government need to get involved?

For that, you’d have to go back to 1983: the year the first Chesapeake Bay agreement was reached.

Congress spent $27 million on a five-year study between 1972 and 1982 to examine the health of The Bay.

“After Hurricane Agnes, back in ’72, the Chesapeake Bay was heading into a tailspin,” Batiuk said. “Rockfish were going down. Oysters were crashing. … The whole ecosystem, folks were concerned about.”

Thus the first Chesapeake Bay agreement was reached.

“That one-page document got Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, District of Columbia and the EPA together holding hands to then say Kumbaya,” Batiuk said. “Back then that was unheard of. These states just did not work together on issues.”

The problem, officials discovered, is that

it’s very hard to enforce a voluntary agreement. No one was held accountable for promises for 20 to 30 years before the TMDL was established.

“When it became clear that they weren’t going to make their goal through voluntary measures, then they established the TMDL,” Batiuk said. “EPA worked with the states so that there was agreement on how much each state and DC would need to reduce, then it was left up the states for how to do it.”

Thirty years’ worth of science, three Bay agreements later (’83, ’87 and Chesapeake 2000) and the TMDL was finally formed in December 2010. The agreements are voluntary measures that go beyond tracking pollution levels, but the TMDL is a federal mandate.

“It’s kind of hard to have an agreement when you say ‘you must do this,’” Wenz said.

So how does it work?

It started with 150 water testing stations set up on tidal waters, which was expanded by another 125 testing centers along free-flowing streams and rivers.

The EPA takes the findings of tests and every two years releases a milestone assessment, which includes an examination of steps states take, like passing legislation or offering incentives like tax credits, to meet allotted pollutant level goals. In Maryland for example, the EPA will track and evaluate the ongoing debate over the stormwater management fee, or as critics call it, the rain tax.

READ MORE: ‘Rain tax’ remains a hot-button issue heading into Maryland elections   

States have until 2017, the midpoint of the 15-year TMDL plan, to reduce the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment their waterways pour into The Bay by 60 percent. States have until the 2025 deadline to fully implement plans that would bring The Bay to its optimal level of health.

 Consequences for falling beyond benchmarks include withholding funding, altering funding and greater oversight by the EPA.

“That’s something the states don’t like—the big bad federal government out there,” Batiuk said.

It is fair to say, however, that the goals are rather aggressive, attempting to achieve from 2010 to 2025 what the Chesapeake Bay Agreements achieved between 1985 and 2010.

How do I know it’s working?

For that we have to go back to the 1970s.

Hurricane Agnes was a black eye and bloody nose to the health of The Bay. The two-week hurricane set the health of The Bay back by a decade , “because we didn’t have cover crops out. Because we hadn’t been smart about stormwater management in terms of erosion control at our construction sites in our neighborhoods and cities,” Batiuk said.

Fast-forward to 2011 when Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee dealt another one-two punch on Maryland, a year after the TMDL was formed. Data collected from the streams showed significant improvement.

“The Chesapeake got smacked back, but she rebounded most of the way,” Batiuk said. “Some of the oysters got killed off by the fresh water … but it showed that the system could even withstand, how many hurricanes have we had in the last four or five years? These are hundred-year storms.”

So how does Maryland compare to everyone else?

“Maryland is making good. progress toward meeting its commitments but there is still more work to be done,” Wenz said.

The successful practices used in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can be a blue print for how to clean water elsewhere in the country

 “What you’re seeing in the Chesapeake region is sort of where the rest of the country has to eventually get. … In terms of reducing the amount of pollutants going into local streams and rivers, sources of drinking water,” Batiuk said. “It’s just in the Chesapeake [region], we’re that much ahead of the rest of the country, figuring out how to do it.”

But, wait, you mentioned something about the rain tax --

It’s actually a stormwater management fee. There is no literal tax on rain water.

Maryland counties were tasked with applying a fee to residents based on impervious surface, which impairs stormwater runoff—one of The Bay’s main sources of pollution.

“Empirical scientific evidence and facts, will not change someone’s emotional response,” Wenz said. “You have to care in order to be willing to take the actions. We can show people what needs to be done and how it impacts their local community and The Bay as a whole. But they have to care enough to want to do those things.”

 

This article has been amended from its original version to more accurately reflect the partnership between states participating in the TMDL. 

 

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