After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

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Code red: for the Chesapeake Bay

Code red: for the Chesapeake Bay

Gerald Winegrad, Fred Tutman, Kathy Phillips

Recent alarming news about the Chesapeake Bay signals a code red for immediate action. Efforts must be ramped up to greatly reduce agricultural and urban runoff pollution. These are the inconvenient truths compelling such action:

  • The legal-sized Maryland bay oyster population declined by half since 1999. Oysters are below 1 percent of historic levels. This is despite the expenditure of more than $100 million. The oyster is a keystone species filtering and cleansing the bay’s waters. The bay states failed miserably to meet their pledge to increase oyster biomass by ten-fold by 2010. Overfishing occurred in more than half of the bay.
  • The 2018 blue crab survey showed a 42 percent decline in mature female crabs, well below the goal. There was a 23 percent decline in the population of all adult crabs.
  • The shad fishery is so depleted it was closed and, 25 years later, has not recovered. The soft clam fishery is depleted, both species of sturgeon are listed as endangered, and the eel fishery is in trouble.
  • The large dead zone in the bay persisted last year and reached near-record size by late June. This oxygen depleted zone stretches for hundreds of square miles.
  • Flesh-eating diseases threatening life and limb have become more prevalent in the bay because of excess nutrients fueling growth of toxic organisms. Bacterial infections are common, especially after rainfall when health departments warn people to avoid water contact.
  • The states — including Maryland — have failed again in meeting their legally binding nitrogen caps. Only one-half of the required 60 percent reduction was achieved in 2017. Nitrogen is the key nutrient causing bay water quality problems.
  • While some celebrated an increase in bay grasses in 2017 to 104,843 acres, the highest since surveys began in 1984, this was just a 5 percent increase from 2016 and it represents only 57 percent of the goal of 185,000 acres we were supposed to have met by 2010. Bay grasses once covered at least 220,000 acres.
  • Despite 35 years of efforts under the formal Bay Program, 58 percent of the bay’s waters do not meet minimum EPA Clean Water Act standards.
  • There is a grave concern that even though reductions for phosphorus and sediment were met for the bay, the pollution reductions mandated by 2025 (after two decades of failed voluntary efforts) will not be achieved, and there is wide acknowledgment that nitrogen reductions will not be met.

This code red scenario is exacerbated by the fact that the greatest nutrient reductions have come from costly upgrades to large wastewater treatment plants, most of which are complete. This easy target, therefore, has been exhausted. Further, the Trump administration has acted to defund the Bay Program, cripple enforcement and repeal key restrictions on nitrogen emissions from coal burning and motor vehicles fuel economy standards.

The EPA failure to take any actions to enforce the pollution diet against laggard states also impedes progress. The increase in large chicken farms, more nitrogen-intensive corn and soybean farming, and more development of forests with increased stormwater runoff all add to the problem.

In December 1983, 35 years ago, the bay states and EPA solemnly pledged to restore the bay in signing the first Bay Agreement. President Ronald Reagan budgeted $40 million for the new Bay Program over four years and said in his 1984 State of the Union that: “We will begin the long, necessary effort to clean up a productive recreational area and a special national resource — the Chesapeake Bay.”

These lofty expectations may be crushed unless:

  1. The EPA takes actions against laggard states, compelling them to meet pollution limits;
  2. Maryland and other states better regulate farm pollutants, particularly animal manure, which should be regulated the same as cleansed biosolids from advanced human wastewater treatment plants;
  3. Funding and tighter discharge permits are implemented to reduce pollutants from existing urban stormwater runoff;
  4. Stormwater laws are adopted prohibiting any increase in rate, volume or pollutant loads from new development;
  5. Existing forests are protected and buffers increased;
  6. And wild oyster harvests are phased out with a shift to aquaculture, and crab harvests are reduced, especially of females.

The future of the Chesapeake Bay is at stake — now more than ever.

Gerald Winegrad ( chaired the Senate Environment and Chesapeake Bay Subcommittee and taught graduate courses in bay restoration. Fred Tutman ( is a former journalist covering the White House, an adjunct professor who’s taught courses on the bay and the Patuxent Riverkeeper. Kathy Phillips ( is the Assateague Coastkeeper and executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust.

Change You Must Believe In

(This is the second in a series of posts on What’s It Going to Take?: A look at how the environmental community can regain the initiative and build the political will necessary to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.)

(Posted by Doug Siglin.)

What's It Going to Take? The New York Times’ Leslie Kaufman recently reported that in the wake of Congress’ failure to enact carbon-limiting climate change legislation, several national environmental organizations are changing tactics. She wrote: “On the strategy front… a three-prong approach is emerging: fight global warming by focusing on immediate, local concerns; reinvigorate the grass roots through social media and street protests; and renew an emphasis on influencing elections.”

I hope she’s right, although with a couple of exceptions, I don’t yet see much evidence that national groups are really moving in the direction of the locally oriented political work that Kaufman cites.
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Partnering for a Clean Bay: Providing Locals the Necessary Resources to Achieve Success

(Posted by Brenton McCloskey)

It takes the dedication and hard work of communities, businesses, individuals and – most of all, committed partnerships – to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) prescribed “pollution diet” mandating new reductions in the Bay watershed, partnerships are essential now more than ever.  In order to meet the EPA’s target date to improve the Bay by 2025, the combined efforts of these concerned citizens and organizations is essential to successfully fulfilling these goals.

Local governments have been asked by the State, via federal mandates, to submit individual Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) to meet local water quality goals. With the EPA requirements on a fast-track, it is important that Maryland maximize its available resources to ensure the Bay is healthy and economically viable now and into the future.
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Attacking the Model Is No Favor to Farmers

(Posted by Hank Zygmunt.)

After attending the recent U.S. Agriculture Congressional Chesapeake Bay House hearing I recalled many conversations I had with a number of farmers throughout my career. At workshops, farm visits and town hall meetings, farmers shared concerns about local water quality and their desire to share in the responsibility to restore their local streams, creeks and rivers.

For farmers, saving the Chesapeake Bay is secondary to their concerns about the health of their local waterbodies. And understandably so, because most of them are not directly impacted by the degraded water quality of the Bay even though they are part of the overall process as it relates to the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. However, whether located in the Shenandoah Valley, the Eastern Shore or Lancaster County, there is a strong recognition, from all sectors, for the need to address local water quality challenges that are dominated by agricultural production.Continue Reading

Big Chicken Vs. Clean Bay

(Posted by Roy Hoagland.)

The Pew Environmental Group recently issued a report, “Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Production in America,” which included a focus on the pollution problems contributed by agriculture to the Chesapeake Bay. Agribusiness interests quickly condemned the report, claiming that as of today, the industry was both “diligent and innovative” in its work to achieve a healthier environment.Continue Reading

Helping Local Officials Crack the WIP

(Posted by Mary Ann Lisanti.)

Two decades ago, when the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort began, the leadership of local officials was viewed as nice, but not essential. Times have changed. Today, with the deadline to develop local Watershed Implementation Plans looming, it’s clear that when it comes to improving the health of our local rivers and streams, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, the elected leaders of town and county governments and the appointed leaders of local soil conservation, storm water, and planning districts throughout the Chesapeake watershed will be the ones to make it happen.

However, the feedback coming from local government is simply this: They need information, direction, and flexibility in choosing approaches, otherwise budget challenges will keep them from reaching their goals.Continue Reading