August 02, 2017

Water Views

Restoration, Collaboration, And Progress: The Chesapeake Bay Experience

The 1960s was a decade of awareness for this nation. Environmental degradation from centuries of industrialization began to manifest itself in significant and obvious ways: rivers catching fire, the nation's symbol, the Bald Eagle, jeopardized by widespread use of pesticides, air pollution in major cities causing significant health threats.

These events gave rise to the creation of new agencies at the state and federal level and a body of laws and regulations designed to address the most serious environmental threats.

At this time, the Chesapeake Bay was plagued with large fish kills, population declines in oysters, crabs, and rockfish, and large areas of the bay with low or no dissolved oxygen called dead zones.

In 1975, Congress authorized a five-year study of the bay to determine the causes of these problems. The results gave rise to the Chesapeake Bay Program in 1983, in which Congress charged the US Environmental Protection Agency with the responsibility of coordinating and supporting the state and federal restoration efforts.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is large – 64,000 square miles – and includes six states (MD, VA, PA, WV, NY, and DE) and the District of Columbia. Its landscape is diverse, as are its history, political structures, and local cultures. It has a land-to-water ratio of 14:1, five times greater than any other estuary.

In the mid-2000s, it was clear that the partnership was not going to meet its water quality goals and the "jurisdictions" – the states and DC – agreed that EPA should establish stricter guidelines.

A total maximum daily load, or TMDL, was set for each jurisdiction to cap their pollutant loadings. Each jurisdiction then determined how and where they would achieve those reductions – wastewater, stormwater, septics, and agricultural runoff.

The partnership also took a comprehensive approach to ecosystem restoration and maintaining healthy watersheds, with goals for restoring habitats and creating sustainable fisheries, for environmental education and citizen stewardship, for toxics and climate resiliency, for land conservation and public access.

Progress has been achieved.

We have reached over 50 percent of our goal to restore 185,000 acres of underwater grasses with a significant increase in biodiversity of underwater grass species. Over 37 percent of our waters are achieving the water quality standards. We have preserved an additional one million acres of land, reaching 50 percent of our goal and having over eight million acres of land in the watershed protected.

Water clarity has improved. Blue crab and rockfish populations have rebounded. We are restoring the balance and rebuilding resilience back into this ecosystem.

We have learned many lessons along the way.

Restoration takes time. Perseverance and maintaining focus is crucial. We are often dealing with impacts that have accumulated over time, in some cases centuries -- we can't expect to see improvements in a few years or even decades.

Eco-systems are dynamic systems -- wide expertise and a flexible mindset is key. Weather patterns, natural cycles, and population growth and development are non-linear and complicate the data. 

It is important to look at indicator data over the long run, to understand the eco-system's response to intervention efforts.   Emerging factors such as climate change, new contaminants such as Personal Care Products (PCP), pharmaceutical byproducts, micro-plastics, endocrine disruptors, etc. require ongoing consideration.

Rigorous management and accountability systems must guide pollution reduction and restoration efforts. We need to have a set of clearly defined goals and outcomes and put into place mechanisms to track short-term progress and allow for course correction. Progress could not have been achieved without collaboration at the local, state and regional level.

It is important to identify corollary benefits and avoided costs that accrue from pollution reduction efforts. For example, a planted shoreline buffer not only reduces nutrient and sediment water pollution, but also sequesters carbon, improves air quality and reduces the temperature of the water which can be beneficial to a cold-water fishery.

In urban areas, proper management of stormwater through the use of green infrastructure can reduce flash flooding, recharge groundwater, and re-establish the base flow of streams. Proper storm water management also reduces the cost of infrastructure repairs to roads and sewer lines, minimizes dredging, property damage, and business interruptions – reducing the tax burden on individuals and businesses alike.

The 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed experience can be replicated in smaller and larger watersheds, like those on the East End. The same principles apply. The laws of nature are immutable.

Although it sounds simplistic, to be successful, you must identify the sources of nutrient pollution and work methodically to reduce them in a fair, equitable, and cost effective manner. It is important to have a governance structure that represents all of the interests involved and affected by the effort. Likewise, it is critical that there be a management and accountability system that stays focused on making progress by setting both long range goals and incremental targets.

This type of restoration effort is not for the faint of heart. It takes time, it takes money, and it takes perseverance. Ecosystem restoration is an evolving science. We continue to learn from our own experiences and from those of other restoration efforts.

Nick DiPasquale is the chair of the management board of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

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