The Bay jurisdictions are starting to work on the third and final iteration of their clean-up plans, which will describe actions they will take between now and 2025, the Blueprint implementation deadline. But with discussions underway to consider delaying full implementation of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, our midpoint assessment has taken on even more importance. The assessment was designed so that course corrections can be made along the way to clean water restoration, not to provide excuses for delay. Rest assured, we will use all the advocacy and litigation tools at our disposal to ensure the clean water commitments are met.
Along with this threat of delay, other challenges lie ahead: the low-hanging fruit has been picked, federal regulatory rollbacks threaten progress, and factors like climate change and the lost pollution-trapping capacity at the Conowingo Dam will mean additional pollution reductions are needed for a healthy Bay. But that should not deter us—science says what we are doing is working—now is the time to double down on our collective efforts.
EPA's Leadership Role
Our midpoint assessment of Bay restoration shows progress along with very troubling trends. If we are to achieve the necessary pollution reductions critical to saving the Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must assert its leadership role and hold the Bay states accountable for the clean water goals they committed to. It must provide greater investments in clean water and impose meaningful consequences to those states that are falling behind, particularly Pennsylvania. Take action now to urge EPA to be an active, leading partner in the Bay restoration effort. Our health, economy, and environment depend on it.
Roughly one-third of the nitrogen pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay comes from the air—half due to nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from power plant smokestacks as well as motor vehicles and the other half due to ammonia from livestock manure and poultry litter. Since 1985, there has been a 35-million-pound reduction in nitrogen pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, due largely, to federal Clean Air Act regulations. The success of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint relies on additional reductions in the future. What’s more, the progress we have achieved is under threat.
The Trump Administration is attempting to roll back numerous Clean Air Act regulations that limit emissions from power plants and vehicles. At the same time, the region has seen increases in nitrogen deposition from ammonia over the last decade, due in part, to increases in poultry production. States must fight these regulatory rollbacks and insist that increases in nitrogen due to growth in the poultry and livestock industry be offset.
A warmer, wetter future, predicted as a result of climate change, will make the challenge of restoring the Chesapeake Bay even harder. Current estimates are that by 2025, increased precipitation will bring additional pollution; however, the impacts on dissolved oxygen will be slightly offset by sea-level rise, which will bring cooler oxygenated water into the deeper waters of the Bay.
It is important for Bay jurisdictions to start planning now for how they will ultimately achieve any additional reductions necessary for continued restoration of the Bay. Phase III WIPs should also consider and include climate-smart conservation practices, programs, and approaches, that will increase the region’s resiliency to future effects of climate change. Practices that yield multiple benefits, including greenhouse gas reduction and climate resiliency, should be prioritized. These practices include using forest buffers, rotational grazing of livestock, cover crops, conservation tillage on agricultural lands, and green infrastructure to manage polluted runoff in urban and suburban areas.
For decades the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River in Maryland trapped much of the sediment and phosphorus pollution carried by the river from upstream, and prevented it from reaching the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. But now the area behind the dam has silted in, and more quickly than scientists had anticipated. As a result, on average, more sediment and nutrients are making their way over the dam and negatively affecting water quality, specifically dissolved oxygen, downstream in the Chesapeake Bay. A scientific analysis concluded that to mitigate for the negative effect on dissolved oxygen, the equivalent of 6 million pounds of nitrogen and 260,000 pounds of phosphorus per year would need to be reduced annually. Bay states have agreed to work collaboratively to address these additional load reductions. And just recently, the state of Maryland made a strong move in that direction by issuing a Clean Water Act certification for the dam that would hold owner and operator Exelon Generation Company LLC largely responsible for these additional load reductions.