Midterm on Bay Recovery in Maryland

By Ben Alexandro, Water Policy Advocate

In my previous work, I would bring a dozen bright eyed kids on science adventures. I helped lead the ‘Stream Scholars’ summer camp.  Under every river stone was a critter they had never seen before that taught them about the health of these cool; clean streams. But as we traveled down the Potomac River, we saw farms, factories, yards, and construction sites that caused the river to be a bit dirtier and murkier. On a blistering summer day we approached the Chesapeake Bay and saw dozens of dead fish floating on the surface, in water as hot as bathwater. The students were shocked. How could we let our national treasure get this bad? How could there be a dead zone in the Bay where fish drown?

We told them it was not just the Chesapeake Bay. The world’s dead zones were growing. Off dozens of coasts throughout the world, there are areas of water that have so little dissolved oxygen during the summer that most aquatic life can’t survive.

The Mid-Atlantic States decided to do something about this problem. They got together to create a blueprint for the Chesapeake Bay and in 2009, President Obama signed an executive order with a plan to reach a new goal: by 2025, have all the practices in place that will clean the bay. Each state has a ‘diet’ of how much nutrients and sediment they could release into our waterways. The goals are to meet the target and eventually restore the Bay. If it works, it will be a model for the whole world. The students found new hope on this, but a couple states were concerned that 2025 was too far off. When will we know if the plan is working? They decided to take the Chesapeake Bay to school and assess the progress. The Bay’s midterm results were slated for 2018, which brings us to today.

On July 27, the EPA released their midpoint assessment to assess progress on the states goal of reducing pollution by 60%. For the first time in years, we are seeing real progress. Bay grasses are coming back; the dead zone is starting to shrink. The water is getting cleaner, but we still have a long way to go. The question is, how is Maryland doing?

We are making some progress. As a result of hard work of many sectors including farming and wastewater treatment plans, we nearly met our sediment and phosphorous goals. And with the help of several cost share programs, many Maryland farmers are managing their land to reduce runoff by planting cover crops to hold soil on the farm better and planting forests to buffer streams. Maryland also implemented the flush fee and raised enough money to upgrade our big wastewater treatment plants and in many cases the water coming out of our treatment plants is cleaner than the water in the river.

We need to pick up the pace. We only reduced 40% of the nitrogen pollution we needed to by 2025. Many are pointing to Pennsylvania or the Conowingo Dam saying that they are the source of the problem- particularly after the deluge of debris that came over the dam in this summer's storms. Pennsylvania does have the biggest lift but the job is not over in Maryland either. We need to stop one million pounds of nitrogen from getting into the Bay every year. We need to pick up the pace and move even faster.

Although agricultural land is still the largest source of pollution, there is only one source of pollution that is still growing in Maryland. Polluted runoff in our towns, cities, and suburbs is the most expensive source of pollution to fix and the one our state is struggling with the most.

This is particularly a problem because big storms are happening more and more often with climate change. Instead of water naturally soaking into the ground and forest roots filtering the water, it is hitting roofs and blacktops, picking up speed and pollution, and flooding local streams. The rushing stormwaters carve out streambanks and dump pollution filled sediment into our rivers and Bay. We saw this in the news time and time again this summer- in Ellicott City, in Baltimore, over the Conowingo Dam, etc.

We have figured out ways to clean up this stormwater. Some areas have even created funds that charge those with the biggest, most urbanized properties to pay more into this fund. Localities can use this fund to fix this problem while beautifying the community by building rain gardens, restoring streams, greening streets, and replanting filtering forests around streams.  This improves the community and creates jobs.

Examples of great projects reducing pollution can be found throughout the state. We even helped create this case story map to show some case stories of great projects. However, some have used these polluted runoff fees to score political points and repealed them without a plan for how stop this pollution, restore our local streams, or save the Bay. Other places like Prince George’s County have found that their polluted runoff fee--the ‘Rain Check’ program--gives people good paying jobs that don’t require advanced degrees. They have already treated 2,000 acres through projects creating $132 million in total economic impact of local spending. Thanks in part to their work, the Anacostia River has gotten its first passing grade in this year’s report card.

However, polluted runoff grows as suburbia continues to sprawl across the landscape. According to the new Chesapeake Bay Model, we could be losing a dozen acres of forest a day. Forests are the gold standard for water quality and work hard to filter out the water running off the land. We are expected to lose tens of thousands of acres of forests by 2025 unless we work harder to protect them.

The challenge in front of us may seem large, but we have overcome large ones in our past. We’ve come a long way since the days when rivers were literally on fireNow we have a new challenge, but need a renewed commitment and investment to get it done. We need more projects, strong permits to make sure everyone is pulling their fair share, more funding for reforestation, and policies that make sure we are smarter by the way we use land.  

We have answered the easy questions, and now need to move on to the tough solutions and get the job done. The countdown to 2025 is on!