Bay pol­lu­tion loads drop be­tween 2014-15

Record Observer - - News - By JOSH BOLLINGER jbollinger@stardem.com

EAS­TON — The Ch­e­sa­peake Bay’s ecosys­tem is start­ing to re­spond to pro­tec­tion and restora­tion ef­forts fol­low­ing a sig­nif­i­cant drop in the amount of nu­tri­ent and sed­i­ment pol­lu­tion be­tween 2014 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to data from the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram and the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur vey.

The pol­lu­tion re­duc­tions are largely cred­ited to dry weather and be­low-nor­mal river flow, but ex­perts noted lo­cal ef­forts to re­duce pol­lu­tion — like best man­age­ment prac­tices, low­er­ing ve­hi­cle and power plant emis­sions and re­duc­ing runoff from farm­land — also play a role.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram, ex­cess nu­tri­ents, like phos­pho­rus and ni­tro­gen, in the Bay’s wa­ter can fuel the growth of al­gae blooms that lead to long­du­ra­tion, low-oxy­gen “dead zones” in deep wa­ter and short-du­ra­tion “mor­tal­ity mo­ments” in shal­low wa­ter. Sed­i­ment can block sun­light from reach­ing un­der wa­ter grasses and suf­fo­cate shell­fish.

Each year, as per the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Wa­ter­shed agree­ment be­tween Mary­land, Delaware, Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia, Penn­syl­va­nia, New York and the Dis­trict of Columbia, ju­ris­dic­tions in­volved in the Bay pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion ef­forts report the best man­age­ment prac­tices — a type of on-land wa­ter pol­lu­tion con­trol — they had im­ple­mented that year, said Nick DiPasquale, di­rec­tor of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram.

The Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram then es­ti­mates how the best man­age­ment prac­tices, “whether it’s waste­water, stormwa­ter, agri­cul­ture runoff and sep­tic sys­tems,” trans­late into pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion, DiPasquale said.

The Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram found the es­ti­mated ni­tro­gen, phos­pho­rus and sed­i­ment loads to the Bay were be­low the long-term av­er­age in 2015.

Be­tween 2014 and 2015, ni­tro­gen loads fell an es­ti­mated 25 per­cent, phos­pho­rus loads fell 44 per­cent and sed­i­ment loads fell 59 per­cent.

Wa­ter qual­ity is mea­sured in three pa­ram­e­ters — the amount of dis­solved oxy­gen in the wa­ter, wa­ter clar­ity or un­der­wa­ter grass abun­dance, and al­gae growth. Ac­cord­ing to the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram, an es­ti­mated 37 per­cent of the tidal Ch­e­sa­peake met wa­ter qual­ity stan­dards be­tween 2013 and 2015, which marks about a 10 per­cent im­prove­ment from the pre­vi­ous as­sess­ment pe­riod.

The re­duc­tion in pol­lu­tion is largely at­trib­uted to fa­vor­able weather. More rain will in­crease river flow and push pol­lu­tion into the Bay. River flow was be­low nor­mal in 2015, but it was not a drought year, ac­cord­ing to the Ch­e­sapake Bay Pro­gram.

“In the past, what we’ve seen is im­prove­ment in a lot of these in­di­ca­tors fol­low­ing sev­eral years of drought con­di­tions,” DiPasquale said. “The Univer­sity of Mary­land an­a­lyzed the data and clearly in­di­cates what we’re see­ing now is sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in a num­ber of in­di­ca­tors fol­low­ing a pe­riod of time with nor­mal or just be­low nor­mal rain­fall, and to them that ... is a departure from what we’ve seen in the past, and it is a very pos­i­tive re­sult.”

Long-term de­clines in pol­lu­tion loads can be at­trib­uted to on-the­ground pol­lu­tion-re­duc­tion prac­tices, ac­cord­ing to the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram.

But, Scott Phillips, the USGS Ch­e­sa­peake Bay co­or­di­na­tor, said con­tin­ued im­prove­ment in wa­ter qual­ity will take time, mainly due to the lag be­tween the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a con­ser­va­tion prac­tice and the vis­i­ble ef­fect of that prac­tice on a par­tic­u­lar wa­ter­way, par­tic­u­larly when the con­ser­va­tion prac­tices tar­get ground wa­ter that could take years or decades to get to the Bay or its trib­u­taries.

The USGS mon­i­tors pol­lu­tion loads from nine rivers in the Bay wa­ter­shed, and has found var­ied re­sults for ni­tro­gen, phos­pho­rus and sed­i­ment, Phillips said.

He said some fac­tors that pos­i­tively im­pacted the re­sults are up­grades to waste­water treat­ment plants, ef­forts to re­duce agri­cul­ture fer­til­izer runoff and from ni­tro­gen air emis­sion re­duc­tions ef­forts.

But, two main fac­tors of wors­en­ing con­di­tions are im­pacts from de­vel­op­ment and ex­cess ma­nure on agri­cul­tural lands. Mar yland is cur­rently un­der­go­ing a large ef­fort to re­duce ex­cess phos­pho­rus pol­lu­tion from Eastern Shore chicken farms with the grad­ual im­ple­men­ta­tion of the state’s Phos­pho­rus Man­age­ment Tool.

This past sum­mer, the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency re­leased two-year mile­stone as­sess­ments for the ju­ris­dic­tions in­volved in Bay cleanup, and found that, in to­tal, all the ju­ris­dic­tions are 31 per­cent of the way to­ward the ul­ti­mate pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion goal for ni­tro­gen, 81 per­cent for phos­pho­rus and 48 per­cent for sed­i­ment.

Prac­tices to re­duce pol­lu­tion by 100 per­cent of the goal are re­quired to be im­ple­mented by the ju­ris­dic­tions by 2025, al­though Phillips said it would take time for those re­sults to come through, due to the lag time associated with im­ple­ment­ing pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion prac­tices.

In re­sponse to the wa­ter qual­ity news re­leased Sept. 21, by the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram and USGS, the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion’s Vice Pres­i­dent Kim Coble said it’s en­cour­ag­ing that as pol­lu­tion drops, the Bay re­sponds, point­ing to in­creases in Bay grasses and bet­ter wa­ter clar­ity as cru­cial com­po­nents of Bay restora­tion.

“We ap­plaud the ef­forts the states, farm­ers, lo­cal gov­ern­ments, and ci­ti­zens have taken to re­duce pol­lu­tion,” Coble said.

How­ever, Coble said that weather played a key role in that pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion, “and that is some­thing we can’t count on ev­ery year.”

“Ef­forts to meet the 2017 goals are mixed. Mary­land and Vir­ginia are largely on track to meet their com­mit­ments, but Penn­syl­va­nia is far be­hind,” Coble said. “The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and the (Penn­syl­va­nia Gov. Tom) Wolf ad­min­is­tra­tion must sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease in­vest­ments in five, south-cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia coun­ties as the most ef­fi­cient, and cost-ef­fec­tive ways of jump­start­ing the lag­ging clean-up ef­forts.”

“When the Bay Pro­gram’s Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil meets next month, all eyes will be watch­ing to see what they do to help Penn­syl­va­nia get back on track,” she said.

PHOTO BY JOSH BOLLINGER

Clouds linger over Leeds Creek near the Tu­nis Mill Bridge Wed­nes­day, Sept. 21. Ac­cord­ing to the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Pro­gram, ni­tro­gen, phos­pho­rus and sed­i­ment loads to the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay dropped sig­nif­i­cantly be­tween 2014 and 2015.

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