If Chesapeake Bay Jurisdictions Are Serious About Restoration, They Must Take Climate Change into Account

David Flores

Feb. 28, 2018

At a workshop on Friday, March 2, representatives of the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions will meet in Baltimore to make important final decisions about how to address pollution – previously accounted for – from the Conowingo Dam and climate change. Decisions these representatives make about how to address pollution loads through the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) agreement will shape how and whether Bay jurisdictions are able to meet their Bay restoration goals during the crucial third and final phase of the restoration compact before its 2025 deadline. 

Recent research by Bay Program scientists suggests that climate change has already increased nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake substantially. Observed increases in rainfall from climate change – along with other factors – could burden the Bay with an additional 9.1 million pounds of nitrogen and 490,000 pounds of phosphorus on an annual basis by 2025. The additional pollution runoff, warming Bay waters, and reduced pollutant removal efficiency of restoration projects will have the effect of pushing restoration of the Bay further out of reach – unless Bay jurisdictions commit to action. 

Unfortunately, in December, Bay jurisdictions not only decided against commitments to address these climate-attributable pollution loads, but they were unable to even reach a consensus about whether the climate modeling and assessment should be incorporated into their final-phase pollution reduction plans (known as "Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs)"). This was not an acceptable outcome and should be remedied at the March 2 workshop if the jurisdictions are serious about Chesapeake Bay restoration. 

The commitment to address climate change in the Bay TMDL begins with the document itself. The Obama administration issued an executive order and the EPA wrote into the TMDL the federal government's commitment to address climate change's impact on the Bay cleanup during this critical mid-point assessment process. In recent years, Bay Program scientists and policy staff have worked with the representatives of the jurisdictions, as well as members of academia and the nonprofit community, to create a climate change assessment framework, climate modeling, and a slate of proposed policies to incorporate climate adaptation planning and response into the jurisdiction's Phase III WIPs. In good faith, the Bay jurisdictions committed to execute the Bay TMDL along with federal partners and, in their 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, to increase the climate resiliency of the cleanup effort. 

Over the course of a year, representatives of Bay jurisdictions – appointed to positions in the Principals' Staff Committee and Water Quality Goal Implementation Team – provided their input and review of the climate modeling and the proposed policies to quantitatively and qualitatively address climate impacts in their Phase III WIPs. At one point, a little over a year ago, it seemed as though a proposal for "no action" to quantitatively address climate loads had been taken off the table by these groups. 

Significantly, the decision-makers were afforded an opportunity to review preliminary modeling outputs during this time. And for the most part, the results looked favorable to the states, especially those jurisdictions that are far behind in meeting their 2017 pollution reduction targets. Modeling showed a range of alternative estimates, including the potential for minimal or no additional nutrient pollution by 2025. The jurisdictions would obviously have eagerly signed on to a climate commitment that required no commitment at all. But now that the modelling is showing that more work will be needed, states are objecting to the process. 

Bay decision-makers may have been shocked by the model's final outputs in December of last year showing an increase of over 9 million pounds of nitrogen pollution, but they had no legitimate reason to not expect that this was a possible outcome. They had been told all along about the increasing devastation that climate change will cause to the Bay ecosystem by 2100, such as increased watershed precipitation, larger and more frequent extreme weather events, rising air and water temperatures, and widespread loss of tidal wetlands – crucial sinks for sediment and nutrient pollution – due to several feet of sea level rise. The writing was on the wall. 

The Bay Program's Science and Technical Advisory Committee convened a panel to provide peer review of the Modeling Team's climate change assessment framework – including the modeling and outputs described above. The panel found room for improved methodology – as scientists are perennially wont to do – and, among other recommendations, they suggested that the assessment possibly underestimates the uncertainty of future variability and extreme events. Just as importantly, they concluded that the "the combination of using climate model projections and downscaling provides an acceptable baseline for estimating changing climate conditions for the Chesapeake Bay, and that the climate change assessment framework approach is fundamentally sound." 

Imperfect though it may be, the model projections for 2025 enjoy a high level of confidence from peer reviewers. If nothing else, the peer review report should goad decision-makers to redouble their modeling efforts for the sake of policymaking along the 2050 and 2100 planning horizon because the panel found that the current effort underestimates the long-term effects on water quality and Bay resources. 

Bay jurisdictions have agreed that the question of whether to commit to eliminating climate-attributable pollution will be deferred until 2022, possibly committing action to limit these loads beyond 2025. But that isn't a guarantee. The Phase III WIPs are the best opportunity and most formalized process on the books to which all parties, including EPA, are committed. There is little likelihood that the jurisdictions could opt to revise Phase III WIPs in 2022. And there is no telling whether and how Bay jurisdictions will seek to build upon their overall restoration efforts – if at all – beyond the agreed-upon 2025 deadline. 

While some delegates may have failed to pay adequate attention, advocates have been speaking up to urge broad climate adaptation action for the sake of the Bay cleanup. Last Friday, CPR joined 35 other organizations in a letter to Ben Grumbles, who is both Secretary of the Environment for Maryland and Chair of the Bay Partnership's Principals' Staff Committee. The letter builds on more than a year of advocacy and analysis and urges representatives of the Bay jurisdictions on the Principals' Staff Committee to accept the science of climate change's impacts on the Chesapeake Bay and to commit to communicating and relying on the information to achieve a more resilient Bay cleanup effort. Earlier letters to PSC representatives are available here and here

Over the next year, Bay jurisdictions will undertake development of their draft Phase III WIPs, and advocates will continue to analyze and advocate around their efforts, pushing for meaningful commitments to qualitative measures to promote climate resilience in the Bay cleanup while looking down the road for opportunities to secure a commitment to quantitative action.

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