I have spent the past 22 years of my life as a Central Virginian working to protect the rivers and creeks that provide sustenance to America’s largest estuary — Chesapeake Bay.
From our state’s breadbasket in the Shenandoah Valley to the tidal guts of the Eastern Shore, the sweet oysters of the Rappahannock to the rich history of the James, Virginia rivers and streams are primary assets that make this an incredibly rich place to call home.
Chesapeake and its tributaries also represent a critical natural resource for the commonwealth. This true national treasure strongly influences the well-being of Virginians and bolsters Virginia’s economy by providing over $41 billion in ecosystem services every year.
I’ve been witness to the effects that pollution and climate change have had in harming this delicate ecosystem. But I’ve also seen how the actions we can take as a society are able to restore the health of the bay and our local waters.
Restoration of the Chesapeake Bay represents one of the longest natural resource initiatives in Virginia, underway for more than half a century. We have made substantial and measured progress in a variety of sectors, including: reducing pollutant loads delivered to the bay through upgrading our sewage treatment plants, banning phosphate in laundry detergents, enacting restrictions to prevent homeowner over-application of fertilizers, and funding programs that reliably ensure clean water discharges from our working farmlands and urban landscapes.
Each of these actions was at some point described as unattainable, cost-prohibitive, unrealistic or even impractical. But Virginia accomplished these initiatives across the state, and they are now widely viewed as successes. While the full benefits of these policies are still unfolding, they have already measurably improved the bay and tributaries, and our commonwealth is an even better place to call home as a direct result.
Still, even with these successes, this national treasure falls far short of what it once was and what it could be.
Fortunately, experience has clearly demonstrated that where we have devoted resources, we have made real progress.
Virginia has just finished collecting public comment on the final draft of the bay cleanup plan — aka the Watershed Implementation Plan and more commonly referred to as the Phase III WIP. This plan represents the final phase of a multi-decade effort to clean up our rivers and streams that flow into the Chesapeake Bay before the looming 2025 federal deadline — a mere 5½ years away.
The good news is that it’s working. We are seeing the signs of progress everywhere — from more blue crabs, to clearer waters, to increased business and recreational opportunity, to a shrinking annual Chesapeake dead zone.
Virginia’s new plan is the most comprehensive and ambitious that we've seen to date — particularly when it comes to tackling the impacts of climate change. Precipitation transfers pollution from our farmlands, roadways, and homes to our creeks, rivers, and bay. Increased frequency and intensity of storm events exacerbate the impacts of those pollutants. Whether it’s adjusting previously defined goalposts to better align with current climate estimates or considering how our rapidly changing climate will influence our protection programs, Virginia is leading the way at both the local and federal levels.
There is scientific consensus that the impacts of climate change upon Virginia’s natural resources will be substantial. As a result, it is critical for the commonwealth to continue to be proactive with planning how to achieve efforts to offset these impacts. The ambitious goals set out in the Phase III WIP are a step in the right direction but it’ll be impossible to reach them by 2025 without committed federal funding and action.
While mitigating the impacts of climate change will be essential for success during this final phase to restore the bay, it’s an effort that cannot be won solely at the state level. During the next five years, all sectors and all levels of government will need to choose to invest in the policies and programs that collectively address the impact of climate change and result in cleaner streams, rivers, and bay. At the federal level, these programs also include, but are not limited to, the Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal farm bill, and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. At the state level, these programs include the Virginia Agricultural Cost Share Program and the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund.
Successful implementation of the WIP will require significant coordination among stakeholders, including federal, state, and local governments, regulated and unregulated communities, non-governmental and governmental agencies and organizations, and citizens of the commonwealth alike. Adequate staffing and support at each level of government and among all involved agencies will be paramount.
Some stakeholders will likely contend that these initiatives are impractical, unattainable or too costly — but we’ve heard this narrative in the past. Achieving bay restoration goals is expected to provide at least an additional $8.3 billion per year in ecosystem services to the commonwealth. This benefit far exceeds the investments proposed and will improve Virginia’s economy, community health, ecology, and quality of life.
It could be said that the price of doing less than what is prescribed in Virginia’s forthcoming cleanup plan will be exponentially more costly than the alternative.
Charlottesville-area resident Pat Calvert is the policy and campaigns manager for clean water and land conservation at the Virginia Conservation Network. He has experience as an environmental educator and Riverkeeper, and is an avid angler.