Lessons from Annual Bay Conference

Evan Isaacson

June 8, 2016

Late last month, almost 250 water quality advocates and officials convened in Annapolis for what is likely one of the largest gatherings of Chesapeake Bay experts. The 2016 Choose Clean Water Coalition conference brought together experts from each of the seven Bay jurisdictions and the federal government to share their experiences and ideas and to hear from some of the officials in charge of the Bay restoration process. They included Maryland's Secretary of the Environment, the Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, and Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The event provided a great opportunity for all of us who care about the Bay and its watershed to get re-energized and educated about the latest projects, policies, and successes. But it was also a time for taking stock. Various papers, studies, and data releases in the last few months confirmed the narrative that had been slowly emerging over the last year or two: that Bay jurisdictions collectively will almost surely fall short of their commitments under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL) as we head into the 2017 Midpoint Assessment. It's no secret that this failure is largely attributable to the lack of effort put forth by Pennsylvania, which EPA Administrator McCarthy called "discouraging at the very least" in her speech.

Nicholas DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, put it even more bluntly, telling the entire audience of conference attendees during his lunch panel presentation, "If Pennsylvania does not succeed, we're not going to succeed. It's as simple as that." I was asked to follow DiPasquale and present my thoughts on restoration progress under the Bay TMDL.

In the spirit of the conference, I started by trying to put the work of Bay states in context and asking the question: Does the Bay TMDL represent the next generation of Clean Water Act implementation? I argued that the history of the Clean Water Act up to today has been about controlling pollution from the pipes of chemical, industrial, and municipal sewage treatment plants through a permitting system and development of a new and upgraded water infrastructure. Calling this "Clean Water Act 1.0," I then defined generation 2.0 as moving beyond controlling point sources to tackling runoff pollution from agricultural and urban impervious surfaces. I concluded that, thanks to the Bay TMDL, some Mid-Atlantic states in the watershed are right on the cusp of making this transition to the next generation and, more importantly, are getting much closer to addressing each of the pollution sources needed to restore the Bay.

I finished my remarks by sharing some insight into what I see as four key things that must happen over the next few years if states are to reach the final 2025 goals of the Bay TMDL.

First, widespread state and local investment is needed to unlock the enormous potential of "green infrastructure." These green infrastructure practices not only reduce nutrient and sediment runoff to waterways, but also reduce air pollution; help states mitigate and adapt to climate change; reduce the urban heat island effect and the energy needs of buildings; increase property values; create jobs and economic growth; and add recreational resources to communities, among many other co-benefits. Policymakers must resist a narrow-minded and short-sighted view that green infrastructure and stormwater permit implementation is too expensive. If stormwater fees are eliminated or if municipalities choose to buy cheap nutrient credits rather than investing in their local communities, then we're losing a great opportunity to deliver the multitude of societal and private benefits that green infrastructure can provide.

Second, restoring state and federal personnel lost to budget cuts over the last few decades is a necessity. In the context of the many billions of dollars in capital and cost-share expenditures that states have invested to restore the Bay, committing just a few million dollars to restoring lost positions represents one of the most cost-effective solutions. We need to get inspectors back on the ground to make sure the laws already on the books are being followed and to monitor and verify the effectiveness of all of the various projects and practices being undertaken due to the Bay TMDL.

Another lesson from the early history of the Clean Water Act is just how long this country has struggled to control "nonpoint source" runoff pollution from agriculture. But the more we learn from the scientists at the Bay Program about the nature of pollution in the watershed, the clearer it becomes that an overwhelming amount of pollution can be addressed by simply having appropriate nutrient management policies. If nutrient management plans are written and verified, and all manure is properly handled and disposed of in each of the Bay states, there is no doubt that the Bay region as a whole will get much closer to reaching the 2025 goal.

Fourth and finally, each of the states must comply with the basic expectation under the Bay TMDL that all new loads – both urban and rural, point and nonpoint – be offset. This policy is essential, but to date has been virtually ignored. Without an offset policy, all of the hard-earned gains made to date will be eaten away by pollution from new growth.

Coming out of the conference, it seems clear that everyone is on the same page about the biggest obstacles in meeting the Bay TMDL goals. Hopefully by next year's conference, we will have a similarly clear picture about whether the lagging states have committed the resources and developed the new policies needed to turn things around as the clock strikes midnight on the first phase of the Bay TMDL.

Read More by Evan Isaacson
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