Chesapeake Bay cleanup is taking much longer than expected — and needs to switch gears, new research says
Federal and state officials around the Chesapeake Bay watershed went on a “pollution diet” more than a decade ago to limit the harmful nutrients entering the nation’s largest estuary.
But efforts to clean up the bay are proving to be more challenging than anticipated, according to a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Program, a massive partnership between nonprofits, academic institutions and local, state and federal governments.
And some impacts are here to stay, the group says. It cites ongoing challenges including climate change, population growth and changing land use.
The study comes from the program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, which spent the last four years looking into the issue.
It aimed to “synthesize what the science is telling us about how people, pollutant processes and the estuary is responding to water quality improvement efforts,” Kurt Stephenson, a professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, said in a statement.
“Moving the needle on improving Bay water quality will require more than just money and effort — it will require new approaches.”
The formal bay restoration effort stretches back decades with the signing of the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1983. Significant progress has been made since then, the new report says.
In 2010 came the creation of the Total Maximum Daily Load, known as the bay’s “pollution diet.” The policy with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates the maximum amount of pollutants the bay can receive while still maintaining water quality.
The Chesapeake watershed is not the only place to use the strategy — but it is the largest and most complex, according to the EPA.
It’s also unique because of accountability measures attached to the pollution standards.
The government set targets for officials in six states and D.C. to meet by 2025. Officials have already acknowledged no one’s fully on track to meet those standards, which largely center around reducing nutrient pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus.
Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, D.C. and others including the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the EPA in 2020 for what they say is the agency’s failure to enforce the cleanup by letting Pennsylvania in particular fall too short.
The EPA recently proposed a settlement that would step up its oversight.
The largest remaining source of nutrient pollution in the bay is agriculture, the new report says, but urban sources like stormwater are growing the fastest.
Officials use what are known as best management practices, or BMPs, to improve water quality, mainly in wastewater management and agriculture. Those include things like planting greenery along waterways and reducing how much a farm’s soil is churned up by mechanical digging.
The new study says existing actions aren’t enough to achieve the pollution targets, in part because the ecosystem is not responding as quickly as officials hoped.
That’s especially true in deep parts of the bay, researchers said.
Waters in the bay are also warming, sometimes offsetting progress by lowering the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.
About 27% of the bay watershed met water quality standards in 1985. By 2020, that figure had only gone up to the mid-30% range, according to the bay program.
Many aspects like water clarity have actually gotten worse in recent years, according to the bay foundation, which gave the overall restoration a D-plus on its most recent report card.
Penn State geography professor Denice Wardrop led the bay program’s STAC committee. She said the goal is no longer to return the bay to how it once was.
“Too much is different,” Wardrop said. “Continued climate change, population growth, economic development – they will all challenge notions of restoration that are based on recreating historical conditions.”
One suggestion out of the new study is to start “sandboxing” methods, allowing officials to test out more localized tools without disrupting current efforts.
Leaders also need to start focusing more on the biggest pollution sources, like agriculture, and require certain policies rather than relying on voluntary adoption, the report says.
“As we face a third missed deadline, it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and realize that we cannot rely on more money alone to meet the goals,” CBF president Hilary Harp Falk said in a statement this week.