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Grading the Bay

Jun 28, 2013 06:57PM ● By Anonymous

“This happened in my lifetime,” says Boesch, professor of marine science and president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), a research arm of the University System of Maryland headquartered in Cambridge.

In 1972, the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act to regulate discharges and pollutants into the “waters of the U.S.,” and to oversee quality standards for surface water. There followed three-plus decades of voluntary efforts, including 1987 and 2000 agreements between the federal government and the Chesapeake Bay watershed-area states to reduce pollution by 40 percent by 2010.

“Both goals were missed by wide margins,” says Boesch, an Annapolis resident who is widely regarded as expert on the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2010, reliance on voluntary efforts ended. After a successful lawsuit by environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—under whose authority the act falls—issued a mandate to the six watershed states: New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

The mandate is designed to reduce pollution in the Bay and tidal rivers to sustainable levels. Based on EPA models, it allots pollution limits to each Bay jurisdiction, a time frame, and an enforcement mechanism.

There is, however, a problem. No funding is attached. That is left up to the jurisdictions. And cost certainly is a concern when projects required to meet the mandate can run hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

New York State successfully challenged the EPA on aspects of the mandate, and Virginia is in the process of challenging over the James River. In Maryland, several counties have formed a coalition, hired a lawyer, and are doing the same.

The mandate, colloquially called “the pollution diet,” is filled with acronyms that experts like Boesch rattle off with ease. TMDL stands for total maximum daily load, the EPA’s term for the diet’s mandatory pollution limits.

WIP stands for watershed implementation plan, for each Bay jurisdiction’s plan on how it will fulfill and fund the diet. In Maryland, the counties and Baltimore City have to devise their own WIPs.

The diet addresses the three main sources of Bay pollution: nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment. The nutrients are caused by wastewater/septic systems and stormwater runoff, and result in algae blooms that kill fish and other aquatic life. When an algae bloom occurs, sediment clouds the water, preventing light from reaching underwater grass, ultimately smothering oyster beds and filling in channels.

The diet requires that 60 percent of each jurisdiction’s limits be in place by 2017, the rest by 2025. The Maryland Department of the Environment, which oversees the diet in Maryland, has gone beyond that time frame, aiming for 70 percent by 2017 and 100 percent by 2020.

Environmentalists are thrilled. “After decades working on Bay restoration, we have plans with details; we have accountability,” says Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. If the mandate is not met, she adds, the EPA could use existing laws to deny construction permits and to withhold federal dollars.

Like others in the field, McGee regards the mandate as a lastminute reprieve for a dying Bay. “This is really the moment in time,” she says. “If we fail, I’m not sure we will have another opportunity in my lifetime.”

But seven Maryland counties see it differently. A coalition of Allegany, Caroline, Carroll, Cecil, Dorchester, Frederick, and Kent counties has hired attorney Charles D. “Chip” MacLeod to challenge the pollution diet.

At a time of high unemployment and budgetary constraints on services like education and public safety, county commissioners don’t want to burden taxpayers with the cost of the diet, says MacLeod, of the Baltimore law firm Funk & Bolton.

He points to Dorchester County, which estimates it will cost $87 million to implement its share of nutrient and sediment reduction. This figure does not include agricultural remediation, over which it does not have authority. In October 2012, the Eastern Shore county’s unemployment rate was 9.4 percent, the second highest in the state after Worcester County.

The coalition argues that the primary culprit in sediment pollution is the Conowingo Dam, located in Maryland on the Susquehanna River, five miles south of the Pennsylvania border. Exelon Power owns and operates the hydroelectric dam, which opened in 1928. MacLeod cites research that shows the dam no longer effectively traps sediment, a claim other scientists dispute. Moreover, Pennsylvania’s laws on agricultural pollution are less strict than Maryland’s. The coalition questions spending money on nutrient reduction before addressing the dam’s sediment control.

“County governments are concerned about the ultimate benefit of the pollution diet. They feel the diet needs to be reallocated,” MacLeod says.

Exelon Power’s operating license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) expires September 1, 2014. As part of the relicensing process, Exelon must submit a plan by early 2013. If the utility doesn’t address sediment control, MacLeod is prepared to intervene—and, he hopes, so will the state of Maryland—on the side of the coalition.

For people who work in the field, the pollution diet isn’t a surprise. “We knew it was coming,” says UMCES’ Boesch. “This is not a new mandate that’s fallen out of the sky.”

But that’s not the case for the county commissioners, Boesch continues. “The local governments weren’t part of the previous process so it’s understandable why it looks new and (like it’s) being imposed on them.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s McGee seconds Boesch. “As the mandate plans funneled down to the county commissioners, there was a lot of consternation. ‘How are we going to pay for this?’ they asked. The rubber has met the road,” she says.

How Much?

The cost of implementing the pollution diet in Maryland appears flexible. Erik Michelsen, executive director of the South River Federation, a nonprofit watershed protection organization in Edgewater, has heard the figure $14 to $15 billion for all the work necessary by 2025. But it could “reasonably” reach a total cost of $25 billon-plus, he says.

In Anne Arundel County alone, corrective stormwater measures are estimated at $1 billion. “It wouldn’t cost this much if it had been addressed earlier,” Michelsen says of a county where, after rainfalls, the health department advises residents not to expose themselves to water for 48 hours because of potentially harmful bacteria.

Likewise, McGee, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has heard a figure in the billions. But she’s skeptical, as it doesn’t account for actions that some counties have already taken, or funding the state and federal governments are putting into upgrades and improvements that will affect the total cost.

“I’ve seen counties come out with estimates, then drop the figure later on,” she says. “The numbers are changing.”

State funding includes:

  • Bay Restoration Fund: A portion goes to upgrade wastewater treatment plants in the state by 2017, paid for by the $5 per month “flush” tax on each citizen’s water bill
  • Watershed Protection and Restoration Program Act of 2012: Requires the largest jurisdictions to implement a fee to fund pollutant reduction fromstorm water runoff
  • Clean Water Revolving Fund: Federal money allotted to states for clean water measures
  • Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund: Established by the state in 2010 for urban stormwater improvements and agricultural cover crops. For FY 2012, the state budgeted $23.5 million to the fund.

“Clearly financial challenges are front and center on most people’s minds but governments and organizations have begun stepping up to help meet the new water quality goals,” says Al Todd, executive director of Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. “The new stormwater fees in many Maryland counties are an example. But aside from the challenge of financing restoration, the new clean water blueprint, relies on much stronger local environmental leadership and building local capacity to get the job done. All of us who live in this watershed will have to do a bit more from homeowners to businesses, farmers to individual citizens. We need to demonstrate that we care about clean water in our local streams.”

Nicholas DiPasquale, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis, says the federal government—which along with state governments regulates agriculture, not the counties—spends $50 million per year to reduce stormwater runoff from Bay-area farms. CBP is a regional partnership of federal, state, and local governments, academic agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

The EPA is in the process of quantifying the economic benefit of the pollution diet to the Bay watershed area, a report that won’t be out until later this year. But in 1980, the last time a cost-benefit analysis was done, Maryland officials put the economic value of the Bay area at $689 billion, including boating, ecotourism, and commercial and recreational fishing.

Based on that figure, DiPasquale estimates the current economic value of the Bay area is $1 trillion.

What's The Grade?

Various organizations annually grade the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. In the past, the grades have not been good.

In its 2012 report for the year 2011, Boesch’s UMCES gave the Bay a D-plus, the worst grade since assessments began in 1986. The Bay got 42 out of 100 possible points, a decrease from 46 in 2010, and the first drop in four years. By comparison, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation puts 70 out of 100 points as a sustainable level of pollution.

Likewise, in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2012 “State of the Bay” annual report, the Chesapeake Bay got a D-plus, scoring 32 out of 100 points. The report measured 13 pollutant factors, of which the Bay failed four.

Nonprofit groups that monitor the state’s rivers also handed out barely passing grades.

The West/Rhode Riverkeeper, an advocacy group located in Grasonville, gave those two rivers an average score of D in its 2012 report for 2011, a grade worse than 2010’s. The score assessed water clarity, algae, underwater grasses, and dissolved oxygen (affecting fish kills).

For its 2012 report for the year 2011, the South River Federation, an advocacy group in Edgewater, gave a grade of E for water quality, dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, underwater grasses, chlorophyll (spring and summer), and Ph-surface. Other grades: bacteria level for human health, C; enforcement in Anne Arundel County, B; and in state of Maryland, D. The grades were about the same as 2010’s.

“All Anne Arundel County rivers are on the EPA list of impaired waterways,” says Chris Trumbauer, the West/Rhode Riverkeeper’s executive director. “The rivers are very much influenced by the Chesapeake Bay because of tidal exchange. They have similar water qualities.” It’s too early to grade the pollution diet’s effect in Maryland, the experts say. The situation is like a play, of which the ending has yet to be written. But, there are hopeful signs.

“The grading of the Bay focuses on water quality,” says Dr. Tuck Hines, director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “Everyone lives downstream of someone, so reducing fertilizers and building rain gardens are helpful. At SERC, we look at solving the problems of the Bay more expansively by examining the entire ecosystem to find science-based solutions. Our scientists showed that forested buffers along streams and shorelines on the Bay are critical to a healthier future for the Bay. There are also simple everyday things that everyone can do. Eat sustainable seafood low in the food chain and help restore oysters. Do not release pets or other exotic species. Reduce plastics and recycle with dedication. Do not flush toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In the long run of accelerating climate change, it’s also crucial to reduce your energy use and carbon footprint.”

Jay Apperson, spokesman for the state environment department, says in a statement that Maryland is on target to meet the diet’s 2017 deadline. “We are now moving from the planning stage to working with local jurisdictions on implementing the measures we need for clean water,” he says.

DiPasquale, of the Chesapeake Bay Program, says that Maryland continues to fund wastewater treatment plant upgrades and storm water management improvements. This past December, for example, the Board of Public Works approved $76 million for such projects in Baltimore City, Anne Arundel County, and other locations across the state.

He also cites a 2012 water quality report that indicates a decrease in the frequency and duration of dead zones in the Bay. The underwater grasses at Susquehanna Flats—a large area of shallow water at the northern end of the river that encompasses Havre de Grace, Port Deposit, and North East—are coming back.

“There are strong indicators that the Bay is on the mend, although there’s still a lot of work to be done,” DiPasquale says. UMCES’ Boesch agrees. “We’re just out of the starting gate,” he says. “But we’re still in the game.”