Thursday, June 11, 2009

Preserving the Chesapeake Bay and the Bay Act

In 1988, Virginia's General Assembly enacted the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act (Bay Act) to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary streams. The Bay Act created a cooperative program between the Commonwealth of Virginia and Tidewater local governments to protect and enhance water quality through environmentally responsible land use management. Each local government in Tidewater Virginia (generally those localities that are east of the Interstate 95) help to protect the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay through local land use requirements which seek to minimize the non-point sources of pollution into the Bay. The original pollution reduction goals of the Act have not been met. The Act did not include any quantitative measurements or goals.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest and most productive estuary in the United States, supporting over 2,500 species of animals and plants. The Bay has played an important role in the history of the region by providing valuable economic, environmental and recreational resources. However, pollution has caused the Bay's water quality to decline over the last several decades impacting the crabbing and fishing, the recharge of the estuaries and recreational use of the water. Despite the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, the Tidewater communities in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay communities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and DC have failed to enforce the targets of the original multistate agreement; reduce two key pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, 40 percent by 2000. When these goals were not met the governors and the EPA in 2000 set definitive new goals to be met in 2010. It is now seems unlikely that these goals will be met.

The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act in Virginia was amended in 2001 to expand the Resource Protection Areas of the Act to all tidal wetlands, tidal shore, perennial flow bodies of water, non-tidal wetlands connected and contiguous to tidal wetlands and buffer lands within 100 feet of any of those features. All other areas of the Tidewater were named Resource Management Areas. Education and regulations are necessary to effectively improve the condition of Resource Protected Areas. Sensible and rational septic, sewage, and agricultural regulations need to be fully developed in many instances and then enforced. Public outreach and education is essential.

The natural beauty, limited areas of environmental progress and scars of the Bay were spelled out in the Sunday Washington Post article by David Fahrenthold and illustrated by the photographs of Cameron Davidson. The health of the Bay began to decline in the 1950s, when underwater grasses started to disappear, and fish and shellfish populations decreased. The deteriorating water quality of the Bay is caused by pollution, which can be divided into two categories: point source pollution and non-point source pollution. Point source pollution results from discharge at a specific point or pipe into surface water, and includes such sources as sewage treatment plants and industrial discharges. (Think municipal waste plants, Sparrows Point steel mill, etc.)

During the past several decades, point source pollution into the Bay has been greatly reduced, due to enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Underwater grasses in the Bay have started to make a comeback, and several species, such as the striped bass, have recovered enough to be commercially viable. However, nonpoint source pollution is a major problem facing the Bay. Oyster and blue crab catches have continued to shrink, and some shellfish populations have declined. The non-point source pollution is difficult to regulate and enforce because it comes down to individuals managing their properties and natural resources for the greater good. However, it can be done.

All localities in the Bay Watershed have identified and mapped Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas (CBPAs) as part of their local Bay Act programs. CBPAs are defined as lands that, if improperly developed, may result in substantial damage to the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries. The zoning maps of each locality show the general boundaries of the CBPAs. Whenever land inside a CBPA is developed or redeveloped, certain standards, or requirements, apply to the development in order to prevent a net increase in nonpoint source pollution. These standards are known as Bay Act performance criteria, and are specified in each locality's zoning ordinances. CBPAs consist of two categories: Resource Protection Areas and Resource Management Areas. As of the last reiteration of the Act, all areas within the Tidewater region are CBPAs. Management of existing non-point source pollution maybe by far more powerful than development restrictions. Actions towards managing and reducing existing non-point source pollution during a period of growth have been limited.

Current regulations prevent further development of RPA lands beyond minor additions to existing residences and structures and impose broad standards for septic regulations. A Water Quality Impact Assessment (WQIA) is required for any development or redevelopment proposed within an RPA, or for modification (clearing, grading, etc.) of any portion of the 100-foot RPA buffer. The Bay Act also requires that all septic systems within a CBPA be pumped out at least once every five years. This applies to all existing homes and businesses, as well as new development. Though this limited requirement may be inadequate to properly maintain a septic system. In addition, a reserve septic drain field is required for all new development. Requirements for maintenance of existing septic systems are necessary to protect ground water quality, and also protect the water quality of the Bay. Though portions of the CBPA are within the Piedmont and overly clay, throughout the Eastern Shore, water moves quickly through the sandy soils, reaches the ground water table, and moves into creeks and then into the Bay. The high water table and sandy soils within shore areas result in a considerable amount of ground water inflow into surface waters. Consequently, ground water contamination from failing septic systems can threaten the water quality of the Bay.

The first steps to protect the Bay were the regulation and reduction of point source pollution, the next steps were to develop a plan to better manage growth and reduce future non-point source pollution. We have arrived at the time necessary to control and improve existing uses of the area to reduce non-point source pollution. Decentralized waste treatment options are cost effective and can be effective if properly understood and maintained. The time to develop and track a septic best practices program for the communities of the Chesapeake Bay watershed has arrived. This is management of homeowners, outreach to HOA’s, work that is best addressed on the local level rather than on the federal level.

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