Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Bay Report Card

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2014 State of the Bay Report has been released. This report uses 13 indicators in three categories: pollution, habitat, and fisheries to offer an assessment of the health of the Chesapeake Bay. According to the report the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay is unchanged since 2012. The 2014 report notes improvements in dissolved oxygen, water clarity, oysters, and underwater grasses. Nitrogen, toxics, shad, resource lands, forested buffers, and wetlands were unchanged. Declines were seen in rockfish, and blue crabs and the phosphorus score. The 2014 phosphorus score dropped because annual phosphorus loads were higher in 2014 compared to 2012, particularly in the Potomac and James Rivers and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore home of all those poultry confined feed lots. According to a Maryland state study, each chicken generates approximately 0.41 lbs. of Nitrogen per year and around 0.35 pounds of phosphorus per year. (Human waste contains around 0.15 pounds of phosphorus per pound of nitrogen.)

The 2014 State of the Bay Report scores the health of the bay at 32 out of 100, a D+ according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. When I was in school anything below a 60 was an F. However, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation grades on a curve. The current goals of all the Environmental Protection Agency mandated Watershed Implementation Plans is a grade of 70, which would represent a saved Bay according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. If you recall the EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that were then partitioned to the various states and river basins. Each of the states and Washington DC were required to submit and have approved by the EPA a detailed plan of how they intend to achieve the pollution reduction goals assigned to them. These plans are called the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation refers to them as the “Clean Water Blueprint.”

In case you are wondering what constitutes a 100, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says that the unspoiled Bay ecosystem described by Captain John Smith in the 1600s, with extensive forests and wetlands, clear water, abundant fish and oysters, and lush growths of submerged vegetation would rate a 100 on their scale.

Reducing pollution from agriculture is the goal of the Watershed Implementation Plans and the key to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. An often stated fact is that agriculture is the largest source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. What is usually not reported is that agriculture is the largest source of nutrient pollution because it is the largest active land use in the region not because agriculture is more polluting than other land uses. According to the Chesapeake Bay model, agricultural land represents almost twice the land as the developed areas. Bay-wide, agriculture is not on pace to meet the 2017 WIP benchmarks, though Virginia is on track thanks to a very successful implementation of a stream exclusion fencing program that has the state paying 100% of the cost of the fencing. However, urban and suburban stormwater runoff is heading in the wrong direction.

Farmers have made progress, especially in Virginia, but not enough. Reducing pollution from agriculture and converting acreage to stream buffers and restoring wetlands is the cheapest way to reduce pollution, and the states WIPs expect to get 75 % of their nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution reductions from agriculture. Even with using the agricultural lands to achieve most of the pollution reductions, the costs of the Watershed Implementation plans are astronomical, about $13.6-$15.7 billion in Virginia alone.
from Chesapeake Bay Foundation report
With budget shortfalls throughout the region, it is important to maintain and expand the cost-share funding for agriculture and the budgets for the Conservation Districts that implement and monitor these programs. If we fail to meet the EPA mandated reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution EPA has threatened to enforce reductions using litigation and enforcement actions to achieve the reductions using point sources (waste water treatment plants and stormwater permits). Using stormwater retrofits to achieve reductions would bankrupt the state.

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