ENVIRONMENTAL RESTORATION: Obama Moves to Revitalize Chesapeake Bay Restoration

By Erik Stokstad
May 29, 2009; Science Vol. 324. no.5931, pp. 1138-1139

With progress stalled for years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking the reins on cleaning up the largest estuaryin the United States. It’s not going to be easy.
Teeming with crabs and oysters, the Chesapeake Bay was legendaryfor its biological richness. In the early 17th century, Englishexplorer John Smith described fish so abundant, he tried tocatch them in a frying pan. But by the 1960s, those days ofplenty were long gone. As sewage and fertilizer ran into thebay, huge algal blooms had erupted from excess nitrogen andphosphorus. Fish and crabs were suffocating in oxygen-poor deadzones.
For more than 25 years, the federal government and six statesin the watershed have repeatedly promised to fix the problem—andrepeatedly failed. They have poured billions of dollars intothe effort, yet few measures of biological health have improvedbeyond the halfway mark to success. The challenge is daunting,because stresses on the bay continue to increase; populationin the 165,000-square-kilometer watershed has doubled since1950 to nearly 17 million, meaning more wastewater, concentratedanimal farms, and nitrogen-rich air pollution. The costs involvedin reducing nutrients are enormous, and a patch-work of localgovernments makes it difficult to restrict or guide development.
Now, advocates see some signs of hope. On 12 May, PresidentBarack Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)to take charge of a new federal effort and to exercise its fullauthority under the Clean Water Act. The order also calls forbetter agricultural practices and the development of a strategyto deal with threats from climate change. "We’re very happyto have an executive order, for the first time ever," says WilliamBaker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an advocacygroup in Annapolis. "It’s saying, ‘Let’s get on with thisright now.’"
At the same time, the leaders of six states and the Districtof Columbia announced a plan to institute a series of 2-yeardeadlines to increase political accountability and clean upthe bay by 2025. Some states may have to double their existingefforts to meet that goal. Meanwhile, substantial sums of newmoney are flowing to restoration efforts, including $891 millionfrom the Recovery and Reinvestment Act for upgrading wastewatertreatment plants. EPA is nearing completion of a baywide pollutioncap, as well as a clean-air rule for the East Coast that willreduce the amount of nitrogen from power plants. "I’m optimisticthat substantial improvements are within reach," says biologicaloceanographer Donald Boesch of the University of Maryland Centerfor Environmental Science in Cambridge.
Long road
The first restoration goals were set in 1987 when a state-federalpartnership called the Chesapeake Bay Program agreed to reducenitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay by 40% by the year2000. The levels fluctuated but did not fall. The amount ofchlorophyll a, which indicates algal blooms, rose, and waterclarity worsened. Still, there was progress: More water hadadequate dissolved oxygen (see charts).
The effort required actions by farmers from Virginia to NewYork because agriculture is the single largest source of nutrientsto the bay, providing 43% of the nitrogen. Financial incentiveswere provided to plant buffer strips along streams to reducefertilizer and manure runoff, for example. Sewage treatmentplants, which contribute 20% of the nitrogen that ends up inthe bay, were upgraded. At the same time, more people movedinto the area; during the 1990s, there was about a 41% increasein the amount of pavement and other impervious surfaces thatsend pulses of nutrient- and sediment-rich storm water to thebay. "The fact that
[the Bay Program] pretty much held the linein the face of growth and development is not a minor accomplishment,"says Thomas Simpson, a soil scientist who leads Water StewardshipInc., a nonprofit in Annapolis.

Despite having missed its first goal, in 2000, the Bay Programset another, even more ambitious, target. Officials pledgedto reduce nutrients enough by 2010 to restore the bay to its1950s state of health. They also set a target for reducing excesssediments flowing into the bay, which lower the clarity of thewater, which in turn harms the submerged grasses needed by crabsand young fish. Even so, during this decade, many indicatorshave been on a downward trend. "I don’t think anyone is happywith the progress or performance of the Bay Program," says J.Charles Fox, who is EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s specialassistant on the Chesapeake.
EPA has several options to flex more muscle under its existingauthority, which it says it will discuss with the states. Theagency could expand its reach over concentrated animal-feedingoperations, for example, or give specific conditions for storm-waterpermits that local governments need for development. "Thereare plenty of sanctions EPA could apply that would be very attention-getting,"says Baker, such as withdrawing certain funding it providesto states if goals aren’t met.
But EPA has little clout over an even bigger problem: so-callednonpoint-source pollution, such as fertilizer seeping from farmfields into streams. Right now, farmers are encouraged to use"best management practices," such as planting cover crops thatreduce runoff, but few states have requirements, and penaltiesare minimal. The 2008 Farm Bill provides $188 million over 4years for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Chesapeake BayWatershed Initiative, the largest amount ever—but notnearly enough, says ecologist Carlton Hershner of the VirginiaInstitute of Marine Sciences in Gloucester Point. The problemis that many of these practices have turned out to be much lesseffective than they seemed in experimental fields. "We’re goingto need to do more to get to the same end goal," says RichardBatiuk, associate director of science for the Bay Program.
The Bay Program hopes to encourage more action by providinglocal governments with more information about their impact onthe bay. "If you provide numbers for the entire Eastern Shoreof Maryland, no one feels accountable," Batiuk says. But now,improved computer models of the watershed and bay have enoughspatial resolution to predict how much nitrogen, phosphorus,and sediment come from small watersheds. EPA is exploring possibleenforcement actions to include in its baywide pollution cap,which is due by the end of next year. Adding more teeth to regulationsis essential, says Boesch: "I don’t know of any cases wherethese kinds of problems have been addressed simply by voluntaryactions and payments."