Chesapeake Bay Year in Review: A Beneath-the-Headlines Look at Some of the Biggest Restoration and Clean-up Issues

by Evan Isaacson

It's that point in the year when we take a step back and reflect on the past 12 months. This was a big year for those concerned about restoring the Chesapeake Bay, with plenty of feel-good stories about various species and ecosystems rebounding more quickly than expected. There were also more than a few headlines about record-setting rainfalls washing trash down the rivers, over dams, and coating the Bay's shores. But I am going to look beneath the headlines at what is driving – or hindering – our progress in restoring the Bay and where things stand now that we're just past the halfway mark in the current Bay cleanup framework. So, in no particular order, here are the top 10 stories and issues I've been watching this year, which I'll expand upon in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

10) States Began to Craft Their Third and Final Watershed Implementation Plans. In June, EPA laid out its expectations for the development of the watershed implementation plans (WIPs) that are to show how states will reach their final 2025 pollution reduction targets. Following the release of the surprisingly strong "expectations" document, the states began to hold roundtables and meet with hundreds of advocates and stakeholders before crafting draft plans. When the completed drafts of each state's WIP are released to the public in early 2019, they are supposed to demonstrate in careful detail what "management actions" the states will rely on to close the gap between current pollution levels and the 2025 target levels.

9) Climate Impacts on the Bay Were Front and Center, but Plans to Adapt Are Lagging. Many parts of the country saw rainfall records shattered in 2018, and the Chesapeake Bay was no exception. For years, climate scientists and experts within the Chesapeake Bay Program have been telling us that our region would get wetter and, importantly, that our heavy rains and snowfall would get even heavier and more intense, with significant ramifications for Bay health. This year, those projections came to pass, in spades. Time and again, the Bay's tributaries swelled with rainwater, floodgates opened, and trash and debris were carried downstream and into the main stem of the Bay, leaving in its wake a cocktail of public outrage and political posturing. But while state officials pointed fingers across state lines, they were not nearly as eager to take the lead in addressing the pollution associated with climate-induced storms.

8) New EPA Leadership Quietly Suppressed Enforcement of Environmental Laws. A grossly under-reported story this year was the slow, gradual, but meaningful changes being made at EPA headquarters. First under Scott Pruitt and then Andrew Wheeler, those in power in Washington created obstacles for staff, particularly those in the regional EPA offices, in charge of enforcing violations and overseeing state regulatory agencies. The reason this story has not received much attention is that these new controls have been established through a series of internal memos and guidance documents, rather than legislation or executive orders. But the effect has been clear and rather remarkable, with enforcement levels dropping precipitously at EPA and among some states in 2018. So while the Trump administration's effort to gut existing environmental and public health safeguards through the regulatory process is getting significant (and deserved) press coverage, it may ultimately be cuts to enforcement programs and staff – and policies designed to stifle the ability of regulators to enforce the law – that create the most lasting damage.

7) Clean Air Act Deregulatory Changes Created Headwinds for Future Progress. Ecosystems being interrelated by definition, a significant portion of the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay begins as air pollution. From toxic lead and mercury belching out of the stacks at coal-fired power plants to smog and fine particulates puffing out of car and truck tailpipes, what goes up also comes down – and is eventually washed into rivers, streams, and the Bay. Clean Air Act regulation is therefore vital to efforts to restore the Bay, and for many years, the decline in pollution from these sources was considered a reliable engine propelling nitrogen pollution levels downward along a lengthy glide path. But the Trump administration has made the revival of the coal industry a top priority, resulting in the takedown of new climate standards, as well as several longstanding controls on coal plant pollution. Perhaps most importantly, however, was the proposed rollback of vehicle emissions standards that were largely praised when they went into effect several years ago. Nationally, transportation is responsible for almost 60 percent of NOx emissions, and in relatively urbanized Bay states, that share is much larger. Even a small percentage decrease in fuel efficiency could put a sizable dent in the emissions reductions we're counting on under the TMDL (not to mention douse millions of people living near highways and in highly trafficked areas with a higher concentration of mobile sources of air toxics).

6) Bay States Finishing Up Sewage Treatment Plant Upgrades with World-Class Technology. The current Chesapeake Bay cleanup known as the Bay TMDL is only the latest iteration in a long history of Bay restoration efforts. While previous such efforts were largely considered failures, they catalyzed investments in upgrades of the region's major publicly owned sewage treatment plants. The upgrading process began in the 1990s in Virginia, and later spread to Maryland and the District of Columbia. Stringent regulations combined with the enactment of statewide fees dedicated to upgrading sewage treatment infrastructure has created the largest concentration of advanced wastewater treatment plants in the country, according to EPA data. Roughly two decades after this massive public works project began, some of the last major wastewater treatment plant upgrades will wrap up by the end of this year, including the huge Patapsco treatment plant in Baltimore. Many Bay states are reaping the rewards of the decisions made by past leaders to create new sources of funding that they knew would provide reliable reductions in Chesapeake Bay pollution. One thing that the 2017 Bay restoration midpoint progress reports made clear is that without pollution reductions from sewage treatment plants, the Bay would have no chance of revival, and we would almost certainly not have many of the local ecosystem success stories we are now enjoying.

5) But States Fell Further Behind in Upgrading Dangerous Urban Runoff. If 2018 embodied the tremendous progress made in reducing pollution from sewage and industrial wastewater sources, it also unfortunately exemplified the problems we face in addressing polluted urban runoff. The key to catalyzing gains made in the wastewater sector was the bold decision by past leaders to create new fees and dedicated sources of funding. The same sort of bold leadership has not been repeated, however, when it comes to reducing polluted runoff in our cities, suburbs, and industrialized areas. The midpoint progress reports confirmed that this source of pollution has not dropped at all since the Bay TMDL was initiated and, in fact, has only increased. Around the country this year, communities have grappled with how to address the problem of stormwater pollution, and we've seen some creative solutions from regulators, voters, and advocates. But in Maryland, which had previously been a national leader in trying solve this environmental and public health issue, 2018 saw setback after setback, with stormwater management being challenged and rolled back at the state level; in large, mid-sized, and small jurisdictions; and among industrial facilities, which often pollute our most vulnerable communities with toxic and carcinogenic substances.

4) Nutrient Trading Expanded, Jeopardizing Efforts to Clean and Modernize Our Cityscapes. Maryland joined Virginia and Pennsylvania this year in creating a water quality trading program. The year began with a legislative effort to stall the proposed trading regulations over concerns that Maryland was not following even the basic pollution trading standards set forth by EPA for Chesapeake Bay states. But by December, the trading regulations were in place and key Clean Water Act permits were modified to allow for trading in place of permit compliance, over the objections of many environmental groups that testified in opposition to the permit modifications this summer. Maryland's program looks to leapfrog neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia with its comprehensive, multi-sector market. But the new program should be understood primarily as an effort to circumvent longstanding efforts to reduce urban runoff through municipal and industrial stormwater permits. For a variety of reasons, the new trading program is likely to do nothing to help restore the Chesapeake Bay in the short term, and might even result in much more pollution in the next several years.

3) In the Suburbs, Forests Continued to Give Way to Development, Creating New Runoff Issues. One of the more promising initiatives of the Chesapeake Bay Program in recent years was the creation of a high-resolution land cover database mapping the entire watershed down to the one-meter level. This tremendous new resource has allowed federal scientists and modelers at the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies to forecast with greater precision and granularity how land use will continue to change and how many acres of forest will be lost to development between 2018 and 2025 (43,000, according to estimates released in August). As we described in a feature released in March, the Bay states have continued to ignore the fundamentally important assumption of the Bay cleanup that they will establish programs to hold the line against new sources of pollution while they reduce pollutants from existing sources. Such policies would not be difficult to create using existing programs and databases; our elected officials simply need to exert leadership. Meanwhile, we have tracked the loss of thousands of acres of natural landscapes essential for the health of the Bay and local waters. The good news is that our tracking shows that the pace of development in 2018 slowed somewhat from the previous two years, at least in Maryland.

2) In Rural Areas, Pipelines and Animal Feeding Operations Industrialized the Landscape. Pipelines began snaking their way throughout the mid-Atlantic region and its court systems in 2018, generating considerable attention from the press and the public. But a less covered story was the expansion of the poultry industry in pockets of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, particularly in the lower Delmarva Peninsula. These two stories characterize the unique nature of modern industrial expansion in the region. Mostly gone are the days of new smokestacks rising in our cities, replaced now with our rural areas sprouting gas wells, pipelines, and appurtenant infrastructure sending countless tons of sediment pollution into nearby creeks and emissions of nitrogen into the air, as well as industrial agriculture operations generating countless tons of manure that must be safely applied or taken out of the watershed. And while the poultry industry expansion that started in 2014 seemed to hit a pause this year, the pipeline expansion is just beginning (in fits and starts as courts keep pausing construction due to numerous legal concerns).

1) Courts Continued to Grapple With the Science of Water Pollution. Finally, a nationwide story that began the year as a faint but growing blip on the radar has ended the year in the Supreme Court. The Justices are currently considering whether to take a couple of challenges that again push us to modernize our understanding of water pollution in the 21st century. For much of the Clean Water Act's history, regulators and advocates worked to make sure that what comes out of pipes at industrial facilities and sewage treatment plants is treated with modern technology. But, as mentioned, current threats are just as likely to be leaching out of pits and ponds. Scientists have long known that water continually flows in and out of ground and surface water. But it has taken much longer for regulators, lawyers, and judges to make sure that the letter and spirit of the Clean Water Act similarly reflect these realities. Thanks in part to the sound and fury surrounding the ongoing saga of the "WOTUS" (Waters of the United States) decision-rule-rollback over the last dozen years, the growing focus on the importance of groundwater in solving our water pollution problems is now being thrust onto the national stage. Thanks to the scientists at the Chesapeake Bay Program, we have long understood just how big a role groundwater pollution plays and why we need effective regulations to protect it – for the sake of the Bay and millions of Americans' drinking water.

This is the first in a series of posts looking beyond the headlines at what is driving success or creating obstacles for clean water in the Chesapeake Bay region. In future posts, I will explore each of these ten issues in more detail based on the latest information available.



© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform