Dec. 9, 2019, marked the 36th anniversary of the signing of the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement at George Mason University in Virginia.
As a Maryland state senator back then, serving on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, I joined 700 bay enthusiasts as witnesses. The one-page agreement was signed by Maryland’s, Virginia’s and Pennsylvania’s governors, D.C.’s mayor and the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, all of whom solemnly pledged to restore the bay.
All of the attendees — elected federal and state politicians, scientists, administrators and environmental leaders — were optimistic that the herculean task ahead would lead to the Chesapeake’s restoration. The optimism was fueled by a display of bipartisanship. The formal Bay Program under the EPA was established with $10 million in funding.
But if in 1983 we were to have imagined a nightmare scenario for the bay, it would be the one we are living in now, 36 years later.
Make no mistake — without the Bay Agreement and the Bay Program, the Chesapeake would be much worse. Reductions in nutrients and sediment have been achieved despite significant population growth, from 13 million watershed residents in 1983 to 18.3 million today.
Still, bay restoration is floundering and the situation is dire.
» We have so poisoned our waters that reports abound of serious flesh-eating infections in humans who come into contact with bay waters. My Annapolis car mechanic, an avid fisherman, contracted a serious infection while fishing the South River and was hospitalized with a chronic wasting disease eating his leg away. He died a year later. This is not an isolated case.
» Most of the bay’s waters remain severely degraded, with 58% of its waters so polluted they fail to meet basic requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.
» Toward the end of July last year, the dead zone in the Chesapeake grew to 2 cubic miles, making it the second-largest late-July dead zone since 1985. Overall, the summer dead zone was the third largest recorded.
» Collapsed fisheries — oysters, shad and soft clams — are at or near records. Rockfish numbers have seriously declined, leading to a mandate from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to reduce harvest. The moratorium on shad harvest has been in effect for three decades, with little recovery.
» Oysters are estimated to be at 1% of the historic levels of the 1880s. Oysters filter the water and its nutrients and also serve as habitat-rich “coral reefs” in the bay. Bay states failed to meet their 2010 deadline for increasing oysters tenfold. In 2014, the states responded by eliminating this goal, as oyster populations declined.
The time for a closure of the wild oyster harvest is now, with a transition period to move watermen to aquaculture.
» Bay grasses, another essential living resource, are at only 56% of the 185,000 acres originally pledged by the states in 2000 to be attained by 2010. Underwater grass acreage will likely end up being significantly lower when results from last year’s survey are complete.
What happened to our lofty commitments?
The years from 1983 to 2010 were marked by voluntary efforts under new bay agreements signed in 1987 and 2000 in which the states committed to take the actions necessary to meet nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals aimed at restoring water quality. The voluntary efforts resulted in repeated failures to meet these goals, resulting in serious consequences for water quality, living resources and humans. But there were no consequences for the elected officials and states that violated their pledges.
In 2010, the EPA was required, in the settlement of a lawsuit, to impose a pollution diet, with hard caps on nutrients and sediment, called a TMDL (total maximum daily load). The EPA listed potential sanctions — some very consequential — for failure to take the actions to achieve 60% of the pollution reductions by 2017 and 100% by 2025.
Again, the states failed to meet many of these requirements in 2017, especially for nitrogen. The emasculated EPA fecklessly failed to take any action against even the most recalcitrant states, such as Pennsylvania.
We have excelled at nutrient reductions from wastewater treatment plants through the expenditure of billions of dollars and tougher federal limits on such dischargers. The reduction from these plants is the singular success story of the bay restoration efforts, accomplished despite wastewater flows increasing significantly to serve a much greater population. The phosphate detergent ban helped in these efforts.
Federal Clean Air Act restrictions also have resulted in significant reductions of nitrogen from atmospheric deposition. Unfortunately, President Trump is undoing these Clean Air Act regulations and promoting coal burning.
But now that wastewater reductions have been achieved, the states are faced with much more difficult requirements to reduce nonpoint pollutants, especially those from farm operations — the No. 1 source of nitrogen pollution — and stormwater from developed lands. The latter is expensive to achieve, as is upgrading septic tanks for better nitrogen removal. Clamping down on farm pollutants, especially from manure, is the most cost-effective choice we can make, and yet efforts lag.
Then there is the problem of increasing pollution loads from new developments and the failure to reduce loads from existing impervious surfaces. Stormwater rates, volume and pollutant flows from new development must not be allowed to exceed the pre-development flows from storm events, including those from increasingly intense storm events. Funding to accomplish the massive multibillion-dollar existing stormwater problem must also be achieved.
Exacerbating these grave problems is the lack of political will to restore the bay. The House of Representatives passed riders in 2017 and 2018 to prohibit any enforcement by the EPA of the limits under the bay TMDL, though they did not win approval in the Senate. And, the states are not initiating the bold actions needed to address these pollutant flows for agriculture and developed lands.
Now, the situation has grown worse. The hopes that were rekindled when the EPA set the states on a mandatory pollution diet with potential grave consequences for failure to comply have been shattered. Dana Aunkst, the director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, has now stated that the TMDL with its 2025 pollution caps is “an aspiration” and not an enforceable deadline.
We are back to voluntary efforts. At no point since 1983 has saving the bay been at a lower ebb.
What is most needed is strong political leadership. Also needed is a more forceful and politically effective environmental community promoting aggressive changes to better regulate farm pollution, development pollution and forest loss. We can get it done, but not with the current attitudes and near-sighted leadership.