Upgrading wastewater treatment technologies has lowered pollution in the Potomac, Patuxent and Back rivers, leading researchers to celebrate the Clean Water Act and recommend continued investments in the sewage sector.
Introduced in 1972, the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program regulates point sources of pollutants, or those that can be pinpointed to a specific location. Because wastewater treatment plants are a point source that can send nutrient-rich effluent into rivers and streams, this program has fueled advancements in wastewater treatment technologies. Biological nutrient removal, for instance, uses microorganisms to remove excess nutrients from wastewater, while the newer enhanced nutrient removal improves upon this process.
Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have linked these wastewater treatment technologies to a cleaner environment. In a report released last month, five case studies show that wastewater treatment plant upgrades in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia improved water quality in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
The link is clear: excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life. Lowering the amount of nutrients that wastewater treatment plants send into rivers and streams can reduce algae blooms, bring back grass beds and improve water quality.
In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists show that new technologies at Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant led to a drop in nitrogen concentrations in the Back River. Upgrades at plants in the upper Patuxent watershed led to a drop in nutrient concentrations and a resurgence in underwater grasses in the Patuxent River. And improvements at plants in northern Virginia and the District lowered nutrient pollution, shortened the duration of algae blooms and boosted underwater grass growth in the Potomac River.
Image courtesy Kevin Harber/Flickr
The Chesapeake Bay Program tracks wastewater permits as an indicator of Bay health. As of 2012, 45 percent of treatment plants in the watershed had limits in effect to meet water quality standards. But a growing watershed population is putting increasing pressure on urban and suburban sewage systems.
“Further investments in [wastewater treatment plants] are needed to reduce nutrient loading associated with an increasing number of people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” New Insights notes.
The days are growing longer, if not much warmer. I always enjoy the coming of spring. Given the winter we’ve had, even more so this year. Though we have clocks and calendars that tell us the time and signal the change of seasons, it’s the natural world’s harbingers of spring that give me true hope that the snowy, cold winter will soon be over.
Image courtesy John Cholod/Flickr
Trees, flowers and iconic species like American shad, striped bass and osprey have their own “clocks” that tell them when warmer days are on the way and it’s time to begin their return migration to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. For me, those are the true indications that we will soon be able to enjoy warm weather and all of the outdoor opportunities our region has to offer. Somehow I trust them more than I do the calendar on my wall.
Just as plants and animals are emerging, many people seem to be itching to get outside once again. All around me, people are preparing their camping gear, planning their gardens and getting their boats ready for the water. Groups across the watershed are gearing up for their season of restoration, and their upcoming tree plantings and stream clean-ups will benefit communities and the environment. And our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have re-launched several smart buoys that are part of the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS), which were removed in winter to prevent ice damage. Some of these buoys are located along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and they allow travelers to check real-time water and weather conditions and listen to narration about natural and cultural history.
Image courtesy Ferd/Flickr
I’m still waiting for the last true indicator of spring: that indescribable but unmistakable smell in the air. It’s hard to express in words, but you know it when it happens. The earth warms, flowers begin to bloom, breezes turn buttery and wildlife emerges. And the cycle—the rhythm of nature—begins anew. The sound of sails luffing is not far off.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
After almost a decade of confusion about just what waters the Clean Water Act protects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have clarified that most seasonal and rain-dependent streams are guarded under the law.
While these streams might only flow during certain times of year or following a rainstorm, they are connected to downstream waters that offer habitat to wildlife and drinking water to communities.
The federal agencies’ proposed rule also protects wetlands near rivers and streams. But it does not expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, and it preserves existing exemptions for building irrigation ponds, maintaining drainage ditches and other agricultural activities. In other words, protection for ponds, lakes and other “stand-alone” waters will be determined on a case-specific basis, and those agricultural activities that do not send pollutants into protected waters will still not require a permit.
The proposed rule will be open for public comment for 90 days after its publication in the Federal Register.
More than 60 organizations and two thousand people have commented on the Chesapeake Bay Program’s draft Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, offering feedback that the Chesapeake Executive Council will consider when finalizing the restoration plan.
Image courtesy Jeff Weese/Flickr
Climate change and chemical contaminants were among the leading issues addressed. More than 1,000 individuals asked the Bay Program to integrate climate concerns and adaptation strategies into our work, while more than 300 asked us to set goals to reduce the pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other toxic contaminants in our rivers and streams. Residents from across the watershed submitted letters that described the potential effects of both issues, from rising water temperatures and eroding shorelines to intersex fish and human health impacts.
Other comments on the draft agreement addressed the need to control stormwater runoff in urban and suburban areas, increase the environmental education of the region’s students and establish more public access sites to connect citizens with local waterways.
“The Chesapeake Bay Program values citizen input,” said Joe Gill, chair of the Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee and secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “More than 17 million people live in this watershed. One of the most important lessons we have learned in our decades of restoration work is that individual citizens, private businesses, watershed groups and local governments are our stakeholders—they are people who have a “stake” in what we do. They are key partners in the attainment of our restoration goals. The Executive Council will welcome and consider all of the comments we receive from our stakeholders when finalizing the new agreement.”
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement will guide signatories—which include the states of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Delaware; the District of Columbia; the Chesapeake Bay Commission; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—in the restoration of the watershed. It establishes goals and outcomes that address water quality, fisheries and habitat, land conservation, public access and environmental literacy.
Comments on the draft agreement were left between January 29 and March 17 by private citizens, nonprofit organizations, conservation districts, wastewater agencies and more. A previous comment period on a prior draft took place between July 10 and August 15, 2013, and generated comments summarized here.