Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Chesapeake Crisis

Oct 07, 2011 12:50AM ● Published by Anonymous

Last year the EPA declared that the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) had failed to meet the goals of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, a document detailing the CBP’s restoration and conservation goals for the next decade. While the CBP had many successes in the past 10 years, like permanently preserving 20 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed from development, the program failed in some of its other goals, such as correcting the nutrient and sediment problems in the Bay and achieving a 1,000 percent increase in oyster populations. In response to these failures, the EPA set a new program in place, a strict pollution diet for the bay called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of nutrients and sediments for the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed. Under the rule, every management effort needed to meet the new goal must be in place by 2025 or delinquent partners will face stiff penalties from the EPA.

This is the first time the CBP is being required to meet particular standards in a mandated period of time. The change will redefine the way the CBP operates, and there are mixed feelings about whether the strong federal leadership is a good thing for the program, given its history of voluntary cooperation. Since its inception in 1983, the CBP has been a completely voluntary partnership between the states of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Washington, D.C., the EPA, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. Margaret Enloe, communications director for the CBP, when referring to balancing the many perspectives that come together at the CBP, says that it can be “an incredible challenge,” but also “an incredibly rich place to work.” Some fear that the mandated goals of the TMDL could divert state funds from land preservation and restoration to meet mandatory federal goals for water quality; others feel that this change may be a good thing to shake up the status quo and finally achieve some of the goals the CBP has failed to meet via voluntary cooperation.

Certainly the new stricter standards of a 25 percent reduction in nitrogen, a 24 percent reduction in phosphorus, and a 20 percent reduction in sediments have worried those groups who will be directly affected by the legislation. Recently, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) challenged the constitutionality of the EPA’s actions in a suit against the federal government. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and several other environmental groups have responded with a countersuit against the AFBF.


This farm is located on the northern shore of Chesapeake Bay with no vegetative buffer in place to filter nutrients before they reach surface waters.


Earlier this month, the CBP released both long and shortterm data that illustrates the health of the many tributaries that make up the Bay watershed. The data show that over the past 25 years the flow-adjusted amount of phosphorus and nitrogen has declined in 70 percent of the streams that were monitored across the Bay watershed. Sediment flows declined in 40 percent of the streams, but stayed the same or increased in the other 60 percent. The relative declines in phosphorus are as large or even greater than relative declines in nitrogen loads over the last 25 years.

Peter Tango, USGS scientist and Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Coordinator for the CBP, suggests that the detergent phosphorus ban of the 1980s, implementation of best management practices on the land, and ongoing improvements to wastewater treatment, all played a role here. This suggests that management tools are having a positive impact on watershed health, although there is a way to go before nutrient loads have dropped to meet CBP targets.

The data also show that of 7,886 sites surveyed from 2000-08, 39 percent of the streams had benthic communities that were in very poor condition. “Benthic,” or bottom dwelling creatures, act like canaries in the coal mine for stream health. When you stop finding mayflies, stoneflies and find only midge larvae and other species tolerant to human impacts, it serves as an indicator that the stream may not be healthy. Many of the surveyed stream sites in poor condition were located in metropolitan areas, places with a large human use footprint, and the findings suggest that there is a need for greater improvements in the restoration of streams. Many different factors related to water quality can impact the health of benthic stream communities, but as long as the streams are in poor health it will be difficult to meet CBP goals for the Bay itself.

The released data tell a story of slow improvements in the Bay watershed, but a way to go before any of the targets are met. Now the CBP is working to reassess the way they (the partners) work together and make decisions in order to accommodate the new goals that have been thrust upon them. It appears that there are some pro’s and con’s to the TMDL plan, but in terms of improving water quality, the positive impacts of strong, strictly enforced goals mandated by the EPA may outweigh the effect of reduced cooperation between stakeholders. Only time will reveal the long term impact of the new program.

Citizens can expect to hear more about implementation of the TMDL in the next few years. In the meantime, there are a number of important ways that you can get involved to help the Bay. If you want to “green up” your home, you can limit the application of fertilizer to your lawn, build a compost pile to minimize waste, plant native plants that are more water efficient, or build a rain garden to slow down water movement.


The northern snakehead is an invasive species of fish, highly predatory, disruptive to the natural balance of Chesapeake tributaries, and, unfortunately, now well-established in the Potomac River, particularly Mattawoman Creek. This past summer, the species was observed in the Rhode River for the first time.


Believe it or not, driving your car is a source of nitrogen to the Bay so biking or carpooling reduces nutrient pollution. There are some great links with more information on the CBP website ( and the Plant More Plants page provides some very cool and free plans for environmentally friendly landscaping designs (

Beside nutrients and sediments, the Bay is facing problems from invasive nuisance species. In the Potomac River basin, most people are now aware of the establishment of the northern snakehead, a voracious predatory fish that arrived from Japan. While exotic and strange creatures like the snakehead are a problem, even the bait you fish with, such as green crabs, and cute pets like turtles in your aquarium can become a nuisance if released into the wild. You can help by using bait native to the water body where you are fishing and keeping your pets at home inside.

Poaching is another big problem. Last year there were reports suggesting that 40 to 70 percent of the oysters that were seeded to help restore oyster populations were poached from the restored reefs. How will we ever restore the oyster populations if we don’t give those we restore a chance to flourish? For species like the rockfish, the blue crab, menhaden, shad and other native species that migrate throughout the Chesapeake, it will take changes in the health of waterways, control of invasive species, and a cessation of illegal harvesting to nurture their populations. To achieve these goals will take cooperation across state lines and politics, and a little patience in order to reap successful dividends from the living and renewable Bay resources.

Annapolis native Christopher Patrick is a Ph.D. candidate studying environmental biology at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.

Community community



Towne Social