Obama Administration Releases Chesapeake Bay Restoration Plans

WASHINGTON, DC, September 10, 2009 (ENS) – The federal government is getting serious about solving the stubborn problem of cleaning up the polluted Chesapeake Bay and restoring the nation’s largest estuary to health. In 2008, after 20 years of restoration efforts, Chesapeake Bay water quality was rated “very poor,” with only 21 percent of the established goals met.

Proposing a mix of carrots and sticks, federal agencies today complied with President Barack Obama’s May 12 Executive Order on the Chesapeake Bay by issuing seven draft reports on ways to reduce polluted runoff by increasing government accountability and public involvement.

“Communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed expect and deserve rivers and streams that are healthy and thriving,” U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters on a teleconference call today. “The poor health of the Chesapeake remains one of our nation’s more significant environmental problems.”

Chesapeake Bay, the Severn River and Annapolis, Maryland (Photo by Gary Hymes)

Jackson chairs the Federal Leadership Committee established by the executive order and serves as the federal representative to the Chesapeake Executive Council.

The recommendations in the reports were shaped by consultations with the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the District of Columbia, as well as suggestions from stakeholders and the public.

“We will use federal leadership, and federal muscle when necessary, to get states to realize the time of working without accountability is over. We must have accountability,” Jackson said.

The Federal Leadership Committee will integrate the seven reports, as well as public comments, into a coordinated strategy for restoration and protection of the Chesapeake Bay.

Between now and early October 2009, the FLC will conduct a policy review of the reports and provide comments to lead agencies

The draft coordinated strategy, along with revised versions of the seven reports, will be made available for extensive public review and comment beginning November 9, 2009. By May 12, 2010, the final strategy will be released.

But the responsible agencies need not wait for finalization of the strategy to take action. “To the extent practicable and authorized under their existing authorities, agencies may begin implementing core elements of restoration and protection programs and strategies, in consultation with the Committee, as soon as possible and prior to release of a final strategy,” Obama states in the order.

Stormwater runoff pollutes Bread and Cheese Creek in Maryland. (Photo by Kharstin)

The order calls for water quality restoration, conservation practices that efficiently reduce nutrient and sediment loads to the bay and resource mangement to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Prepared cooperatively by 10 federal agencies, the draft reports call for increased accountability and performance from pollution control, habitat protection and land conservation programs at all levels of government.

They propose new regulations to reduce polluted runoff from urban, suburban and agricultural sources and new funding to help farmers comply. Urban and suburban runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, while agricultural runoff is the largest.

The report on water quality relays EPA’s intention to hold the states in the watershed more accountable for controlling pollution, through increased oversight, enforcement activities and new policies.

The bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed spans parts of six states – Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – and the entire District of Columbia.

Trash mars the Chesapeake Bay (Photo by Brian Talbot)

Economists have estimated the bay’s value at more than $1 trillion, and its bounty includes over 500 million pounds of seafood per year. Supporting more than 3,600 species of plants, fish and other animals, the Chesapeake is inhabited by 29 species of waterfowl and is a major resting ground along the Atlantic Flyway.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters on the teleconference that agencies within his department – the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service – would work to identify opportunities for landscape-scale conservation for the area.

“We may need to expand wildlife refuges and add appropriate areas to the National Park System,” Salazar said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters that his department is focused on reducing runoff from private working lands – forests and farms, especially concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs.

Vilsack said it is crucial to identify the waters with the highest levels of nutrient loading and focus on high impact practices that can reduce those nutrients from agricultural sources, such as fertilizers and manure.

“We want to accelerate the adoption of conservation practices on private working lands and improve incentives for conservation by farmers,” Vilsack said.

Part of the rulemaking process will expand the CAFO regulations, but Jackson said the government has not yet picked a number of animals to which the new rules will apply nor a definition of the requirements.

Cows muddy a Chesapeake Bay stream. (Photo by Chesapeake Bay EO)

Whatever the new regulations are, Vilsack said, “We want to put farmers in a position to comply with those regulations. Every farmer wants to do protect the quality of the land and waters, but they do need help.”

Vilsack announced that $638 million would be available over five years to create incentives and help farmers comply with new rules.

There has been a loss of agricultural and forest lands to development in the watershed, said Vilsack, pointing out that the region and the nation are losing fresh grains, vegetables, beef and other benefits that agricultural lands provide, such as open space and wildlife habitat.

“The Chesapeake Bay watershed is losing 100 acres of forest land every day. These could have prevented millions of pounds of nutrients and sediments from running off into the bay,” he said.

The strategy aims to increase public access to the bay. Today only two percent of the shoreline is publicly accessible. Under the new Chesapeake Treasured Landscape Initiative, the federal government will target available funding, particularly through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, for investment in the Chesapeake region.

One report suggests establishing a center for climate science research and assessment, which would be a regional Chesapeake Bay component of national efforts to address climate change.

Another report recommends strengthened management of stormwater on federal lands in the watershed. Federal lands, from industrial to wilderness, account for 7.8 percent of the watershed. The largest pollutant contribution per acre from federal lands is urban and suburban stormwater.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker said the federal government’s new approach was pointed in a positive direction because it focuses on actions, but it is “weak and needs strengthening.”

“For example,” Baker said, “the report’s suggestions with regard to airborne pollution are woefully inadequate, virtually ignoring the growing recognition of air emission problems from coal-fired power plants, truck and automobile emissions, and manure.”

“We are encouraged to see that EPA has expressly stated its intent to pursue some actions “as soon as possible” and prior to the completion of the overall federal strategy,” said Baker.

“What is still missing are clearly identified bold, specific, and measurable pollution reductions EPA will pursue today,” Baker said. “Whether it is the proposed wastewater pollution discharge permit for the Merck pharmaceutical company which threatens Virginia’s Shenandoah River; or the Sparrows Point steel mill site in Maryland, which continues to contaminate recreational waters; or the series of unchecked gas drilling permits in Pennsylvania, which threaten the health of trout streams and high-value wetlands; EPA has the opportunity to step forward now, to exercise federal leadership now, to start changing the status quo now.”

“We need bold new leadership, collective accountability by all contributors to the bay’s problems, and dramatic changes in policies using all the tools at hand if we are to fulfill President Obama’s goal for clean water throughout the region,” Jackson said. “These reports bring us a step closer to achieving the vision we all share for the future of the Chesapeake Bay.”

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