By GERALD WINEGRAD
Citing a “historical decline in the living resources of the Chesapeake Bay” bay state governors joined by the mayor of Washington, D.C. and the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement solemnly committing to restoration.
This first Bay Agreement of Dec. 9, 1983, set the stage for the formal EPA Bay Program, which was initially supported and funded by President Reagan.
During the succeeding 37 years, many detailed commitments were included in subsequent agreements, including a 40% reduction in the two key nutrients polluting the bay – nitrogen and phosphorus. Substantial reductions in sediment also were agreed upon for this third major pollutant. When the states failed to meet their voluntary commitments, a federal court acting under the Clean Water Act forced the EPA in 2010 to impose mandatory reductions for each bay state. Sixty percent of the reductions were to be met by 2017 and 100% by 2025.
Deviating from the past, the EPA was to step in and enforce these pollution limits against recalcitrant states with penalties as severe as blocking new development and additional air and water emissions from power plants, sewage treatment plants, and stormwater flows. Unfortunately, when states failed to meet their required reductions in 2017, especially for nitrogen, the EPA failed to impose sanctions, even arguing under President Trump that pollution reductions were voluntary.
Last year, the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware, and the District of Columbia sued the EPA and Pennsylvania for gross violations of required pollution reductions throwing the Bay Program into a questionable phase. The hypocrisy was apparent to me as Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware were far from meeting their critical nitrogen reduction goals.
Despite the expenditure of more than $5 billion in clean-up efforts, the enactment of major laws, and heroic efforts by private citizens, government staffers, and scientists, our living resources are still in trouble. This is because of the abject failure to adequately address non-point source pollutants primarily from agriculture and stormwater runoff from new and existing developed land.
As a state senator, I sponsored or managed much of the Maryland bay legislation while serving on the tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission. Looking back, the greatest success came in reducing nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater plants. This was responsible for 84% of Maryland’s nitrogen reductions achieved since 1985. Despite substantial increases in sewerage flows, we are removing 21 million more pounds of nitrogen and 2 million more pounds of phosphorus yearly under mandates for the 67 largest plants. This remarkable achievement was due to the Flush Tax raising $1.4 billion and my legislation banning detergent phosphates.
Another great success was reducing nitrogen emissions reaching the bay from air emissions by two-thirds from 1995-2020 due to a tightening of the federal Clean Air Act.
Unfortunately, we still have far to go in reducing pollutants from farming and urban development. This failure is reflected in some very bad news for key bay species.
Oyster populations are at 1% of historic levels: Despite the expenditure of more than $350 million in federal and state funds, the oyster population remains a collapsed fishery. About 80% of historic oyster reefs in Maryland are non-productive due to excess sediment smothering them. The bay states’ pledge to increase oyster populations by 10-fold by 2010 was abandoned when there was barely any increase. Oysters are a keystone species responsible for filter-cleansing bay waters and serving as the Chesapeake’s coral reefs.
Blue crab numbers have plunged: The number of juvenile crabs dropped this year to their lowest level in the 32 years of surveys, down 54% from last year. The adult male crab population declined to nearly half of the long-term average. The total number of crabs fell 30% to the fourth-lowest level ever recorded and only one-third the population 30 years ago. As crab prices skyrocket, fishing pressure increases while the Department of Natural Resources refuses to act to restrict harvest leaving Virginia to follow suit.
Rockfish are in trouble: The rockfish, or striped bass, was saved from collapse by a Maryland moratorium from 1985 to 1990 that led to federally imposed restrictions. Overharvest and other factors have again brought this important fish to the precipice of collapse. The DNR has failed to reduce commercial landings of rockfish recently.
The shad fishery is collapsed and closed: The bay states pledged in 2000 to bring back shad so at least 2 million of them would reach the Conowingo dam for spawning. That goal was abandoned when shad numbers were consistently below 3% of that goal. Despite the Maryland DNR declaring the shad a commercially endangered species and closing the fishery 40 years ago, the shad population is still collapsed and nowhere near recovery.
Bay grasses have radically declined: Underwater grasses declined in 2020 to the lowest level since 2013. The 62,169 acres were just below the level of 30 years ago despite the bay states’ pledging in 2000 to achieve coverage of 185,000 acres by 2010. A pristine Chesapeake Bay may have supported 600,000 acres of underwater grasses. These plants are extremely important for many other species, such as blue crabs, serving as their nurseries. They also prevent erosion, hold back sedimentation, and soak up nutrients.
The formal Bay Program is at its lowest ebb with EPA inaction and bay states suing the EPA and each other. The 2021 Chesapeake Bay Foundation State of the Bay Report graded bay health a disappointing D+ with President Will Baker rightfully noting “the system is still dangerously out of balance . . . the road to restoration is steep, and the clock is ticking. The stagnating score shows that we are witnessing apathy take hold and political will wane.”
All of this demands a radical change in restoration efforts. Bold new actions are needed to crack down on farm pollution, especially to control chicken industry contamination. Legislation to stop wild oyster harvest and switch to aquaculture is essential, as is a new law that prohibits any increase in rate, volume, or pollution loads from stormwater runoff. Maryland and other states need to act now and start with doing what Annapolis did, end the loss of forest from development.
Yet the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others continue to focus on gaining more money as the primary solution for the bay’s problems, while policymakers engage in half-measures that attempt to appease the public through greenwashing – creating the appearance of working for the protection of the environment.
The bay’s critters and grasses tell the real story.
Fortunately, the Bay Program has made crystal clear what needs to be done and how reducing nutrients and sediment can restore water quality and living resources. Without the necessary bold measures, the bay and its living resources are doomed.
Gerald Winegrad represented the greater Annapolis area in the Legislature for 16 years, where he championed efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. He served on the tri-State Chesapeake Bay Commission and taught graduate courses in bay restoration and wildlife management he authored. Contact him at email@example.com.