A new report from an advisory committee of scientific experts recommends the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Watershed Model be adjusted to better account for the influence of stream corridors and tree canopy on pollution from urban areas.
In the report, experts from the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) suggest accounting for the effects of stream corridors and urban trees to improve the model’s accuracy and allow managers to better target pollution-reducing best management practices.
Trees and stream corridors interact with nutrient and sediment pollution in ways that are unique compared to other urban land covers, the study suggests. The erosion of stream channels can significantly increase the amount of sediment pollution associated with an urban area, while trees can help reduce the volume of polluted runoff.
The Watershed Model is used by Bay Program partners and stakeholders to estimate the amount of nutrients and sediment reaching the Bay. The model currently includes three urban land use categories: impervious (paved) surfaces like buildings, roads or parking lots; pervious (porous) surfaces like lawns or landscaping; and construction sites.
The federal agencies leading the watershed-wide effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay have released a progress report highlighting work completed in the last year, as well as a summary of achievements from the past five years.
Last year, federal agencies and their state and local partners opened more than 150 miles of rivers and streams to migratory fish, providing passage to key species such as American shad, river herring and American eel. They established conservation practices across farms and forests, protecting soil and water resources throughout the Bay region. And they launched efforts to respond to the emerging threats of toxic contaminants and climate change and their effects on fish, wildlife and local communities.
Since the signing of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order in 2009, the federal agencies and their partners have helped make significant progress toward restoring the health of the Bay, including the permanent protection of more than 500,000 acres of land, the opening of 86 public access sites and the development of the nation’s largest oyster restoration project at Harris Creek. Over the last five years, federal agencies on the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay have spent more than $2 billion on Bay restoration and protection.
The 2014-15 progress report marks the final report exclusive to the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay; federal partners will continue to track their protection and restoration efforts as part of the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and its associated management strategies. Draft versions of these strategies are available for public feedback through April 30, 2015.
Learn more about the 2014-15 progress report on the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order website.
While pollution controls put in place over the last five years have lowered the amount of nutrients and sediment entering the nation’s largest estuary, new data show that agricultural sources have sent more nitrogen and sediment into the Bay since 2007 than previously thought.
Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can impair water quality: nitrogen and phosphorus can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, while sediment can suffocate shellfish and block sunlight from reaching underwater plants.
Each year, the seven watershed jurisdictions report the steps they have taken to lower the nutrients and sediment entering rivers and streams. Bay Program experts run this information through a suite of computer simulations, which generate pollution load estimates that show us how far our partners have come toward meeting the Bay’s “pollution diet.” When bolstered with new data on population size, land use and agricultural commodities, these simulations show a drop in pollution since 2009—including a six percent drop in nitrogen, an 18 percent drop in phosphorus and a 4 percent drop in sediment—but a two percent rise in nitrogen and sediment loads between 2013 and 2014.
A shift in agricultural commodities could explain this rise in nitrogen and sediment loads. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, several states have seen a surge in corn plantings since 2007. Because corn requires nitrogen-rich fertilizer that can leach off the ground and into local waterways, more corn plantings led to more nitrogen loadings than anticipated when pollution targets and reduction milestones were set.
The Bay Program uses the best possible data and information to track our progress toward restoring water quality. By incorporating new data into our computer simulations and pollution load estimates, we are allowed a more accurate picture of pollution in the watershed and a better understanding of the actions that are needed to reach our clean water goals. Because these computer simulations generate pollution load estimates using long-term average weather conditions, it’s possible for these estimates to differ from those that are based on water quality monitoring data; the latter can vary with the amount of rainfall in a given year.
“Each year, we employ the most current data and up-to-date science [to] offer the highest quality information to the public on pollution reductions resulting from Chesapeake Bay Program partners’ continued efforts. While we… have a lot of work to do… we are making steady progress toward meeting water quality goals,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
These pollution load estimates are just one in a suite of tools the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses to evaluate whether jurisdictions are on track to meet the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and its two-year milestone commitments. The EPA also considers data and information on best management practice implementation, best management practice effectiveness and jurisdictions’ progress toward putting programs in place to achieve pollution cuts. It is expected to release interim assessments of jurisdictions’ work in May and conduct the next full two-year assessment in 2016.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead
This quote is often used to characterize the efforts of individuals working for small organizations who get great things done. As I’ve traveled throughout the watershed over the past four years, I’ve repeatedly witnessed the remarkable work of these local organizations. Just recently, I attended a kick-off event for the fourth revision of the Elizabeth River Project’s Watershed Action Plan. More than 70 people attended, representing the major stakeholder groups in the Elizabeth River watershed: community representatives; local, state and federal government officials; business leaders; teachers and university faculty; and members of environmental organizations—a true collaboration.
The Elizabeth River flows between the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake as it makes it way to the Chesapeake Bay. Once one of the most heavily polluted water bodies in the region, the area has faced significant environmental challenges. Money Point, along the Southern Branch of the river, was once a 35-acre “dead zone” contaminated by creosote, a chemical used as wood preservative. Most would find the thought of taking on these environmental challenges more than a little daunting. But in 1991, four local citizens outlined a vision for creating an organization to do just that, establishing the Elizabeth River Project just two years later.
The Elizabeth River Project released its first Watershed Action Plan in 1996, updating it every six years. The 2008 Plan established a set of guiding principles: build strong partnerships through collaboration, incorporate environmental education into every action, plan proactively to reduce impacts from sea level rise, monitor progress using indicators tracked against a baseline and promote environmental justice for all stakeholders. With each revision to the Watershed Action Plan, the goals have grown to be quite ambitious. In their current work on a fourth update to the Plan, the group’s determination only continues to grow.
In 2014, the Elizabeth River Project issued a State of the River report assessing the health of each of the five major branches. By any measure, the success of the past 20 years in meeting the ambitious goals they set for themselves is, in a word, incredible. On the notorious Southern Branch, including Money Point, more than 36 million pounds of contaminated sediment have already been removed, with further improvements underway. The number of fish species observed in the area has increased from four to 26, and the rate of cancerous and pre-cancerous lesions in the mummichog, an indicator species, has dropped from above 40 percent to almost background levels.
Several programs run by the Elizabeth River Project work to increase awareness among various segments of society and to reward citizens who take positive steps to improve their environment. Their River Star Program highlights homes, schools and businesses that take simple steps to protect the Elizabeth River. With the help of donors and other supporters, they developed the Learning Barge, a solar- and wind-powered barge equipped with living wetlands, an enclosed classroom, composting toilets and a rainwater filtration system. More than 50,000 people—including 20,000 K-12 students—have been educated on the barge, which is moved from location to location by tug operators that volunteer their time and equipment. Restoration work by the Elizabeth River Project and its partners led to the opening of Paradise Creek Nature Park—40 acres of land along Paradise Creek, a tributary of the Southern Branch—in 2013.
While the Elizabeth River Project and its partners have accomplished amazing things in a relatively short period of time, they continue to look ahead at the work still left to do. On March 23, they held a kick-off meeting to once again revise and update their Watershed Action Plan—the first of four meetings that will culminate with a plan that guides the collaborative efforts of the organization and its partners for the next six years. Just as I have no doubt they will set their aim high when establishing their goals for the years to come, I also have no doubt they will achieve those goals in large measure. The Elizabeth River Project and its partners have never been intimidated by the magnitude or complexity of the challenge. It’s their river, and they are reclaiming it. They serve as an inspiration to all of us.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.