The History of Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Efforts


The first 20 words of the 1972 Clean Water Act are straightforward and completely impossible to misinterpret: "The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters."

Thirty-seven years later, bodies of water across the U.S. are so polluted that huge areas are unable to support aquatic life, human health is at risk, and our economy is hurt. The Chesapeake Bay, one of the most polluted water bodies, is on EPA's "dirty waters" list.

The Chesapeake Bay is arguably the most studied large body of water on earth. It is an unusually complex ecosystem, but there is a great deal of scientific consensus on the causes of its decline. First and foremost among these causes is a huge and systemic overabundance of human-introduced nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into the Bay from the land and the air. This excess of human-introduced nitrogen and phosphorous degrades water quality and contributes to the decline of the Bay's living resources.

On September 3, 2013, CBF President Will Baker testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife at a field hearing entitled "Chesapeake Bay Restoration: Progress and Challenges." The purpose of the hearing was to explore the progress that has been made through the Chesapeake Bay Program toward Bay recovery, the effectiveness of current restoration programs and activities. Read the complete testimony.

Past Efforts: 1983-2010

  • 1983: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed an agreement with the state of Maryland, the Commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the District of Columbia recognizing the need to act to clean up the Bay.
  • 1987: The governments signed another agreement that required a 40 percent reduction in nutrient pollution to the Bay by 2000.
  • 1992: The 1987 agreement was reaffirmed.
  • 1998: CBF published the first "State of the Bay" report card on the Bay's health, grading it a 27 on a scale of 100.
  • 2000: When it became apparent that the 2000 deadline would not be met, the United States and the other governments signed a third agreement. The Chesapeake 2000 agreement set a goal of improving water quality in the Bay sufficiently to get it off the Clean Water Act's "dirty waters list" by 2010. Among other steps, the 2000 agreement requires a 40 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
  • 2006: EPA admitted the terms of the 2000 agreement would not be met by the 2010 deadline—indeed likely not until 2020 or later.
  • 2010: CBF's 2010 "State of the Bay" report card grades the Bay a 31.

It has long been noted that people cannot keep doing the same thing over and over and hope for different results. If we have any hope of breaking out of the static or even worsening conditions in which we find ourselves despite our best efforts, the federal, state, and local governments of the region simply must take dramatic action to bring about a major reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus entering the tributary system and the mainstem of the Bay.

Forty years of intense scientific investigation by leading estuarine scientists have documented precisely why the Chesapeake is degraded and how to fix it. No other water body in the world can boast this level of scientific understanding. From the molecular to the macro, we know how this marvel of nature works, or doesn't. Most important, science has taught us that the 200-mile-long Chesapeake Bay with its 8,000 miles of shoreline are only one part of a much larger ecological system (see sidebar). Its boundary is defined by its drainage basin of 64,000 square miles natural boundaries which declare the political lines of states as insignificant and meaningless.

However, with rare exceptions, the six states that make up the watershed have made their own plans and programs independent of one another. It's time for a systems approach to management, one which would address the entire system as single ecological entity.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint: 2010-2025

  • May 12, 2010: A new federal strategy for protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed, drafted under President Obama's Executive Order, is released.
  • July 1, 2010: EPA announced draft allocations for nitrogen and phosphorus as part of the rigorous pollution diet for meeting water quality standards in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
  • September 1, 2010: The six watershed states and the District of Columbia submit draft Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs).
  • September 24, 2010: EPA released its draft Chesapeake Bay pollution limits, which contain evaluations of the draft WIP's released by the six watershed states and the District of Columbia. A public comment period for EPA's draft TMDL and for watershed states' draft Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) ran through November 8.
  • December 2010: The states published their Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and EPA and its partners developed a Total Maximum Daily Load for the Bay watershed. When taken to the local jurisdictional scale through the state WIPs, the TMDL will create point and nonpoint nitrogen and phosphorus load caps for jurisdictions throughout the Bay watershed.
  • December 15, 2011: Jurisdictions submit draft Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans.
  • December 31, 2011: The first set of two-year milestones is completed.
  • February 15, 2012: EPA provides formal comments on draft Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans.
  • March 30, 2012: Jurisdictions submit final Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans.
  • Future
    • Prior to 2017, EPA reviews the full suite of the partnership's Bay models based on the best available science and decision-support tools and considers whether updated models should be developed to support Phase III implementation plans and potential modifications to Bay TMDL allocations.
    • In 2017, the states and the District submit draft Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans by June 1 and final plans by Nov. 1 with a focus on ensuring that all practices are in place by 2025 as need to fully restore the Bay and its tidal waters.
    • EPA modifies the Bay pollution limits, if necessary, in December 2017.
    • Pollution levels are reduced to the point that the Chesapeake Bay can be removed from EPA's "dirty waters" list by 2025.

(above) The dark green area shows the Chesapeake Bay watershed as it spans six states and the District of Columbia. From its headwaters in Cooperstown, New York to the Virginia Capes, where its waters collide with the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles away, the Chesapeake is a single biological and hydrological system.

The Chesapeake Bay receives half of its water from a network of 110,000 streams and 1.7 million acres of wetlands, most of which are non-navigable tributaries and non-tidal wetlands that drain to those tributaries.

More than 40 years of scientific research by the Stroud Water Research Center in southeastern Pennsylvania attests to the critical importance of small headwater streams in removing pollution from higher order streams and rivers, as well as in preserving aquatic and riparian life throughout the entire system.

"Recovery: Half Empty or Half Full?" Is the health of the Chesapeake Bay getting better or worse? Is the Bay cleanup campaign a success or a failure? Or something in between? .

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