Restoring the Health of the Chesapeake Bay


1. Introduction

H. L. Menken once wrote that Maryland is a mysterious and beautiful State, and at the heart of that mystery and beauty is the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay is a living, and relatively shallow-water estuary, and is the largest and longest of such in the United States. She is actually a living web of living plant, animal and water systems that are mutually dependent on one another for life. The Bay is also the source of jobs, income, food and prosperity for countless thousands of Marylanders in this generation and the next. What value would a waterfront home anywhere in Maryland have if the waters in front of it were dead, devoid of life, incapable of maintaining their health, and unable to sustain animal, plant or human life?

During my time in office as Governor of Maryland, my administration set the Strategic Goal of Restoring the Health of the Chesapeake Bay. Our benchmark was to take the actions necessary to reach the “Healthier Bay Tipping Point” by the year 2025. Although we were not the first administration to pursue this goal, no prior administration has made greater strides.

Over the last eight years, we have put in place:

1) the necessary actions and funding mechanisms to reduce all four major sources of pollution from land — agricultural, wastewater treatment, septic, and storm-water,

2) the performance measurement and management system, now known as theMaryland BayStat, to drive the restorative actions taken on land in ways that all citizens and stakeholders can see, monitor and guarantee,

3) an agreement by all six States and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to
 take necessary, verifiable and measurable actions on land, accounted for against two-year milestones, to restore the waters of their own State that flow, ultimately, into the Chesapeake Bay.

In the following, I will lay out the measures we have taken to reduce pollution from all four sources, and thereby improve the health of the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

2. An Overview of the Causes of Chesapeake Bay Pollution

2.1 Main pollutants

The main pollutants of the Chesapeake Bay are nitrogen and phosphorous. While these nutrients promote the growth of organisms in the Bay, excessive amounts lead to the degradation of water quality. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous cause unnaturally high algae blooms that block sunlight to underwater flora, deplete the natural oxygen in the water, increase the natural pH of the Bay, and create fertile environments for the growth of harmful parasites. Cyanobacteria (“blue-green algae”) are also known to proliferate under high nutrient conditions. Fig. 1 Distribution of the causes of Chesapeake Bay pollution

These harmful bacteria produce powerful toxins that can affect the liver and nervous system of domestic pets. In short, high algae blooms block the process of photosynthesis, thereby leading to the disruption of the aquatic food chain, and endanger the lives of dependent organisms including humans.

2.2 Major sources of nitrogen and phosphorous  

The four major sources of pollutants of the Chesapeake Bay are agricultural waste, wastewater treatment, septic, and storm water run-offs (Figure 1). Agricultural farms account for 37% and 53% of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution to the Bay, respectively.  Storm water yields 20% of the total amount of nitrogen pollution, and 22% of the gross amount of phosphorous to the Bay.

To address this problem, the O’Malley-Brown Administration implemented (and in some cases strengthened) several actions.                                                                                                                                                          

3. Steps implemented to reduce pollution in the Bay

The purpose of each of the actions outlined below is to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen pollution runoff into the Chesapeake Bay from each of these four sources of pollution on land.

For two of these sources – agricultural pollution and wastewater treatment pollution — actions taken on land have been steadily reducing the flow of pollution into the waters of the Bay.

3.1 Implementing Agricultural Best Management Practices  

Maryland, together with the other five states of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, has agreed to reduce the amount of harmful pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from agricultural sources. Maryland farmers have long been leaders in this effort, showing farmers in other states that it is possible to be profitable and more responsible at the same time.

Figure 2 Total Nitrogen load from agriculture (Millions of lbs) from 1985-2013

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that Maryland and other Bay states make verifiable reductions of farm nutrient pollution by 2025 (Figures 5 and 6). Nutrients—primarily nitrogen and phosphorus—are key ingredients in fertilizer and animal waste.

Since the beginning of the O’Malley-Brown Administration, progress on the following key agricultural actions to reduce the levels of phosphorous and nitrogen entering the bay includes:

1) Cultivation of Cover crops: Considered one of the most cost effective practices to reduce nutrients, cover crops are cereal grains planted annually after summer and fall harvest to take up excess nutrients. In recent years, the Cover Crop Program has expanded in both popularity and scope thanks to new, dedicated funding provided by the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund and the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund. Between 2007 and 2014, the Administration has provided farmers with $113.4 million to plant cover crops that have prevented 14.7 million pounds of nitrogen and 501,686 pounds of phosphorous from entering the Chesapeake Bay.

Figure 3 Total Phosphorous load (Millions of lbs) from agriculture from 1985-2013

2) Nutrient Management Program: The Nutrient Management Program protects water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries by ensuring that farmers and urban land managers apply fertilizers, animal manure and other nutrient sources in an effective and environmentally sound manner. Agricultural activities must occur annually and different nutrient efficiencies are applied according to the level of management, which includes precision agriculture, enhanced nutrient management, and nutrient management on pasture. Maryland met its 2013 Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) goal of managing a total of 1,050,458 acres, and achieving nitrogen reduction of approximately 4 million pounds.

3) Manure Transport: The Manure Transport program provides financial assistance to farmers who have excess manure or high soil phosphorus, which restricts manure use. As a result of manure transport, farmers transported 668,000 tons of manure to sites and alternative uses where it could be safely used during the last eight years. Using EPA’s interim nutrient reduction values, farmers reduced nitrogen by 1,336,000 pounds and phosphorus by 1,336,000 pounds.

4) Cost-Share Program: The Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share (MACS)
Program provides farmers with grants to cover up to 87.5 percent of the cost to install Best Management Practices (BMP) on their farms to prevent soil erosion, manage nutrients and safeguard water quality in streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. BMP and per farm caps were raised during the O’Malley-Brown Administration, and additional funds were directed to cost share BMPs using the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund. During the last eight years nearly 4,500 BMPs were installed, reducing nitrogen by 920,000 pounds and phosphorus by 500,000 pounds.

Soil Conservation and Water Quality Plans: A Soil Conservation and Water Quality Plan (SCWQP) is a comprehensive plan that addresses natural resource management on agricultural lands and utilizes BMPs that control erosion and sediment loss, nutrients and manages runoff. In 2014 Maryland was actively managing nearly 934,000 acres under SCWQ plans and reducing nitrogen by 868,620 pounds.

5) Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program: A federal/state partnership,CREP pays landowners to take marginal crop and pastureland out of production for 10-15 years and install stream buffers, wetlands and protect highly erodible land. In 2009, CREP was reauthorized with a streamlined process providing more attractive incentives for BMPs. The O’Malley-Brown Administration allocated nearly $2.4 million in special funds to support $100/acre signing bonuses, and more than $2 million in cost-share funds. From 2010-2014, Maryland farmers participating in the program have installed 1,675 acres of riparian grass buffers;; 733 acres of riparian forest buffers;; 1,398 acres of highly erodible land protection;; and 547 acres of wetlands achieving nearly 77,000 pounds in nitrogen reductions.

3.2 Wastewater Treatment Plants

Discharge from wastewater treatment plants is the second-largest source of nutrient pollution in Maryland, accounting for approximately 25% of the nitrogen pollution that flows from homes in Maryland into the rivers and waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

To address this pollution, Maryland has undertaken several actions, highlighted below, to improve wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) in the state. These actions began when Governor Ehrlich signed into law the much-maligned “Flush Tax” which now assesses a $5 a monthly fee for the upgrading of wastewater treatment plants and septic systems across Maryland.

The following actions were implemented to help reduce the amount of wastewater from treatment plants deposited into the Bay:

1) Wastewater Treatment Plant Fund: As of July 30, 2014, the Comptroller of Maryland has deposited approximately $620 million in the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) Wastewater Treatment Plant Fund.

Figure 4 Total Nitrogen load from wastewater (Millions of lb) from 1985-2013

2) Bay Restoration Fund: The Bay Restoration Fund is a dedicated fund, financed by wastewater treatment plant users. With the capital improvements program, the Fund is used to upgrade Maryland’s 67 WWTPs with enhanced nutrient removal (ENR) technology so they are capable of achieving wastewater effluent quality of 3 mg/l total nitrogen and 0.3 mg/l total phosphorus. In addition to significant nutrient reductions, other pollutants will be further reduced (beyond the conventional 90 percent) due to the installation of the world’s most advanced treatment technologies. A similar fee paid by septic system users is utilized to upgrade onsite systems and implement cover crops to reduce nitrogen loading to the Bay.

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Chesapeake Bay Restoration, Martin O'Malley

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