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Tipping Point for the Chesapeake Bay

Apr 15, 2013 05:52PM ● By Anonymous

The Chesapeake Bay is improving. Signs of progress are clear. The dead zone of low oxygen in the Bay the past summer was the smallest on record since 1985. The blue crab population is rebounding from historic lows, and oysters are finally doing better.

The health index of the Chesapeake improved 14 percent since 2008, according to the 2012 State of the Bay Report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). “While the overall health score for the Bay is still unacceptable at D+, we’re seeing results from clean-up efforts,” Baker says. In fact, few people may realize that over the past 25 years, the amount of pollution in the Chesapeake watershed has been cut in half, according to computer models. All that work by farmers, sewage plant operators, and others is paying off.

Water quality is improving relatively slowly, but scientists say that’s natural for a vast estuary that was so thoroughly ravaged by pollution. Restoring the Bay is like turning a super tanker. It takes time. And the good news from the Bay’s best scientists is that we may be nearing a “tipping point,” at which the Bay will essentially accelerate its own healing. But Baker is quick to add that the Bay has a long way to go to become safe for swimming and fishing. And final success is far from assured. He says vested interests representing industrial agriculture,

homebuilders, and other groups are trying to scuttle the very Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint that offers the best chance to finish the job of restoring the Bay. Those attacks undermine what has been a critical component of success to date: cooperation by government, business, and citizens.

“We are standing on the brink of an extraordinary opportunity—one that could spell the difference between success and failure for our Chesapeake Bay. Our progress is the result of cooperation. Day by day, community by community, we are turning the tide. Cooperation will remain essential,” Baker says. “But all of this progress could be undone if special interest groups and extremists are allowed to turn back the clock on Bay restoration.” The results of the cooperation can be seen everywhere.

For instance, more than 80 miles west of Harrisburg, Pa., the largely agricultural Mill Creek watershed has long suffered from excessive pollution that caused algae blooms, low oxygen dead zones, and reductions in fish habitat. This pollution affected recreational anglers and others. Community members stepped up with solutions: fencing cows from streams; planting native trees, shrubs, and grasses; and building manure storage facilities. Scientific monitoring shows those efforts are paying off. Pollution levels have dropped more than 50 percent in Mill Creek. The water in the creek flows to the Susquehanna and onward to the main stem of the Bay.

These sorts of efforts are being replicated Bay-wide: State and local officials are joining with farmers, watermen, and residents to do their part to clean up local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. Perhaps the best example of cooperation, is the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint itself. This new, federal/state clean water effort has committed the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states of the Bay watershed to make major pollution reductions by 2025. EPA has set pollution limits and the states have developed a series of transparent and reportable two-year implementation plans to meet these reduction targets. Together, the pollution reductions and the states’ plans comprise the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Fully implemented, the Blueprint will restore the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams to good health. But even with remarkable progress both in the halls of government and along the streams and rivers of the watershed, some are fighting against the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Special interests are waging an all-out assault through Congress and through the courts.

And in Maryland, some elected officials in some counties have decided to fight rather than cooperate. Seven rural counties have hired a law firm to help them push for an alternative clean-up strategy focusing, perhaps, only on dredging the Conowingo Dam rather reducing pollution everywhere, including the Conowingo.

Some of those same counties have fought to be exempted from state water pollution laws and regulations. Others are resisting a state law that better manages sprawl development and the pollution it engenders.

“We continue to suffer from the effects of polluted waterways—human health hazards, lost jobs, and devastating fish kills, all reminders that there is still work to be done,” Baker says. “The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finish the job we’ve started. Let’s not fall back into finger-pointing, rhetoric, and foot dragging. We know from 40 years of experience what that produces: dirty water. And now we know the formula for success: cooperation.”