Why haven’t we cleaned up the bay?
On Jan. 25, 1984, some six weeks after the Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed, President Ronald Reagan drew a standing ovation in his State of the Union address with these two sentences: “Though this is a time of budget constraints, I have requested for EPA one of the largest percentage budget increases of any agency. We will begin the long, necessary effort to clean up a productive recreational area and a special national resource: the Chesapeake Bay.”
I was the Environmental Protection Agency administrator at the time, and more than 30 years later, we are still working to achieve that goal. The bay program has evolved into a major multi-jurisdictional partnership that established goals and deadlines and milestones. Still, the health of the Chesapeake Bay (and all of the rivers and streams that feed it) is far from where it should be.
Certainly, there has been progress. Since the agreement was signed, the population in the bay area and the watersheds feeding it has grown from 12 million to almost 18 million. The effect of that increase has been largely controlled. The bay and the rivers have not deteriorated much, but they have not been restored. It’s fair to ask whywe haven’t achieved this goal. Controlling some of the pollution coming into the bay is hard. Major sources — factories, sewage treatment plants, specific flows into the bay — are largely controlled.
What’s left is nonpoint source pollution, the largest uncontrolled source of water pollution in the country. That’s runoff from lawns, streets and parking lots. It’s leaching from septic tanks and from farms and animal-feeding operations. There are tens of thousands of these pollution sources throughout the watershed. They all contribute nutrients to the bay that cause algae blooms, which result in the loss of oxygen, harming fish and shellfish. We know the sources and the location of pollution— where it’s the worst and where it’s increasing or decreasing.
The Clean Water Blueprint, in place since 2010, includes goals each of the bay states made and to which each committed. It lays out solutions that make the most sense for each jurisdiction, includes two-year incremental pollution-reduction targets and provides for full transparency. From improved wastewater treatment to agricultural practices, we know what needs to be done, where it must be done, when it must be done and by whom.
Now comes the hard part: getting thousands of individuals to make changes in how they manage their farms, parking lots, septic tanks and lawns. Reducing that pollution will benefit all of the states’ water quality, upstream and downstream.
But we lack public demand and participation. Look at the bitter controversy about the mandatory stormwater fee in Maryland (since repealed, but now being implemented voluntarily).
Controlling nonpoint source pollution will be disruptive and costly; someof that cost will be borne by people in the water shed who will enjoy water-quality improvements in local streams as a result. Farmers in the Susquehanna watershed, for example, contribute significantly to the nutrients that are affecting the bay and their own drinking water; the changes they need to make to control runoff will yield significant water-quality benefits.
The ambitious blueprint sets specific limits on the amounts of nutrients and sediments that enter the bay, with interim progress by 2017 and a 2025 final deadline. To implement the blueprint, all affected parties must be given a seat at the table. When that happens, real progress can be made. Puget Sound is proof of that.
The EPA was created largely because the public demanded action and got it. Now, those who oversee the bay program need to ensure that the interim deadlines set under the blueprint for the bay are met. If they do, the public will support them.
A satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay.