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Chesapeake Bay News

Archives: December 2009


Chesapeake Bay Program Assists in Development of China's First Watershed Program

The Chesapeake Bay Program had great success in Beijing from March 28 to April 5, 2009, when we worked with the World Bank and United Nations Global Environment Facility (UN-GEF) to develop the first-ever watershed program in China for the Hai River watershed, a 123,000-square-mile area that includes the 31 million people in Beijing and Tianjin.

Several of the goals of the World Bank and UN-GEF project were to:

  • Decrease water pollution to the Hai watershed and the adjacent Bohai Sea.
  • Reduce the groundwater overdraft in the Hai watershed.
  • Reduce pollution loading to the Bohai Sea from coastal counties.
  • Develop Integrated Water and Environmental Management Plans (IWEMPs) for ten selected counties in the Hai watershed and for the Tianjin Municipality.

At a five-day conference, we worked with Chinese federal level equivalents of the EPA, Department of Agriculture and the Department of Water Resources. Representatives and experts from the province (state) and local levels were also present.  What our Chinese colleagues brought to the table was energy, a passion to begin their first watershed program, and knowledge that the status quo of polluted water and air wasn’t good enough.

They also brought legacy baggage: inexperience with watershed programs, ministries and departments that have never worked together on a watershed scale, and the perspective that their ministries treat what should be public domain data as private property.  If data is to be had, it has to be purchased from the agency that collected it, generating problems in a watershed program that is short on monitoring, discharge and emission data to begin with.

This sounds pretty grim, but it’s really not too different than in the 1980s when the Bay Program began, and, ya’ know, ya’ gotta start somewhere. 

The conference began with two days of six interrelated presentations that told the story of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s integrated air, watershed, estuary and living resources models. Our Chinese colleagues were particularly interested in the air and watershed models, as they’re developing an assessment of the overall proportions of point and nonpoint source loads to the Bo Hai watershed.  This is exact same question the Bay Program set out to answer with the first watershed model in the early 1980s. 

In our discussions on the first day, it came out that there was a real interest in estimating the land export factors for the Hai watershed, so we went back to the hotel after dinner and worked pretty much though the night to put together a new presentation specifically on this topic.  It’s kind of cool we can do this with the internet.  Even on the other side of the world, we were able to use our web-served documentation and reports to make this new presentation happen. 

The Bay Program’s open web-based approach was also a revelation to our Chinese colleagues, as was our program’s office, which holds EPA, university, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, Forest Service, state agency personnel, and representatives from other organizations all working on the same watershed.  This is completely different from the insular and closed approach in Chinese public agencies today.

By the end of the technology transfer conference, we heard consensus about taking an overall mass balance approach for nutrient inputs and outputs in the Hai River watershed – a key first step that needs to be taken in any study.  We encouraged them to begin a spreadsheet of the mass balance right away, taking into account the numbers of animals in each county and the estimated loads from animal and village populations.  The important thing was to get some momentum going on this project, as well as to get an early sense of the data gaps and problems that would need to be sorted out. There will be a thousand areas of compromise and best professional judgments that will be key to putting this first watershed assessment together. 

Overall, our participation was a great success.  Rarely have we felt the Bay Program have such a large impact over such a short period of time. Our Chinese colleagues saw the Bay Program as an example to follow. After 30 years of our watershed protection program, we are at a Phase 5 level of watershed modeling, while they’re able to start at a Phase 1 or Phase 2 level and build from there.

We congratulate and applaud our Chinese colleagues for beginning this watershed approach. It’s the right track and will in the long run provide the most complete and cost-effective environmental protection. A new cooperation among the different Chinese agencies leading this project has begun, which will be key to any success with their first watershed program. Our colleagues in Beijing have made good progress in this direction and have the right mix of environmental, agricultural and water resource agencies at the table, as well as a good representation from the federal, provincial and local levels.

We thank our Chinese colleagues for their kind hospitality and for making the Chesapeake Bay Program a part of their conference.

Background on the Hai watershed and Bohai Sea:

Covering a catchment area of 123,000 square miles, the Hai River is a crucial river in North China formed by the convergence of five rivers in Tianjin: the Chao River, the Yongding River, the Daqing River, the Ziya River and the Hutuo River.  The Hai River flows into the Bohai Sea.

About Lewis Linker - Lewis Linker is a modeling coordinator with the U.S. EPA at the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Keywords: watershed, Pollution

What Would Google Do? China, Google, and the Chesapeake Bay Program

China is a country of mixed messages.   I noticed on my first night in Beijing that in the sink of my hotel bathroom was a large red sign with an international red circle and slash over a picture of a drinking water glass.  Clearly, an indication not to drink the water.  Next to it were two drinking water glasses that were set out ready for use. 

The theme of mixed messages seems to sum up the dichotomy in China between increasing prosperity on one hand, and huge environmental problems on the other.  Sure, there’s a growth, but increasingly voices are being raised about the air that can’t be breathed, and the water that can’t be drunk. One hears, “Where’s the fish?  They were here in my father’s day.” With the growing prosperity in China, one also hears, “This is my air clean it up!” or, “This is my river – fix it! 

For us in the Chesapeake region, this sounds all too familiar. In fact, there are parallels to where we were in this region in the 1970s and 1980s, when the environment all around us seemed to be heading irretrievably downhill. It was about then that citizens here said “Enough!” and started restoring the Chesapeake Bay, just about one decade after the citizens of the entire country said “Enough!” on the first Earth Day in 1970, and we began the long process of cleaning up our air and waters.  China now seems to be on the cusp of that same decision.

This, then, was the backdrop for the Chesapeake Bay Program’s visit to Beijing this April, when we spoke with Chinese scientists and managers from three different agencies about setting up China’s first watershed program.  In this workshop, there were three federal-level Chinese agencies, roughly equivalent to our EPA, Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Geological Survey, as well as provincial and local government representatives.  People from these different agencies were meeting together for the first time and taking about the first watershed program ever in China.  

They were totally wowed with the Bay Program's work as we relayed the different tools of research, monitoring and modeling we used in the Chesapeake.  At the close of a week of intense discussion and technology transfer, we left them charged up, and convinced that they're on the right track with this new watershed approach. They were going to first apply it to the Bo-Hai basin, a watershed of 123,000 square miles that contains the mega cities of Beijing, Tianjin, and the adjacent coastal bay.  With what they learned in the Bo-Hai basin, they’ll expand to other watersheds in China.

This is an example of an environmental jump-start, similar to the economic leapfrogging the Chinese have mastered.  We can hope that their watershed programs avoid our mistakes, and profit from our successes.  For example, we shared with our Chinese colleagues our knowledge of atmospheric deposition, the highest nutrient input load to the Chesapeake watershed.  Higher than fertilizer loads.  Higher than manure loads.  And about a third of the nitrogen load delivered to the Chesapeake. 

Our Chinese hosts were incredulous and suggested that this could not be a feature of Chinese watersheds.  We suggested, in the face of evidence of rapidly expanding industrialization with little or no controls of nitrogen oxide emissions, that the nitrogen deposition in China may be on the order of about 20 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare.  The older, more experienced Chinese professionals were most skeptical.  Point sources, manure and fertilizer loads, they knew, and they planned to track these loads in their nascent watershed program.  They even had work underway to track “village loads,” a euphemism for human wastes used as fertilizer in agricultural fields, still a feature of Chinese small plot village agriculture.  But atmospheric deposition loads of nitrogen?  They just couldn’t believe it.

The very next day one of the bright Chinese managers found a reference for an atmospheric deposition study in China.  The verdict?  Serendipity and happenstance put that referenced Chinese atmospheric deposition load right at 20 kilograms per hectare, the load we has suggested just the previous day as what may be found in China. The Bay Program’s reputation was secured!

That bright young manager was one of what we’ll call the “young innovators”: up-and-coming men and women from junior management with a whole career ahead of them and ready to move up.  My impression was that the young innovators were the key to China’s environmental future.  These mid-level managers seemed to be the most eager to learn about the Bay Program’s long-established triad of monitoring, modeling and research that develops the plans that drive implementation of restoration efforts in the Chesapeake.  We shared with them the importance of open-source, public-domain data, information, models and analysis.  

Most importantly, we shared with them the idea that information wants to be free.  That is, the power of information is magnified and more fully applied when it’s available to all, and we have “every brain in the game.” The status quo in China today is that Chinese agencies use information as a zero sum game.  They think, “If I have the information, then I know something that you don’t, and if you want that information you’re going to have to pay for it.”  This is no way to run a watershed program!  Imagine what would happen to our Chesapeake partnership if USGS, NOAA, EPA, and every state agency wanted to be paid for the data that they collected as part of their publicly funded mission? 

China clearly needs to innovate, throw out their old-think that “power comes from tightly held information” business model, and become more “Google-like.” China needs to ask, “What would Google do?” Google’s business model is to develop useful information and then give it away.  Hence, these Google products: Google Search, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Gmail, You Tube, and Google just about everything.

This develops a huge customer base that Google uses for subtle targeted ad placement.

Public agencies, especially in China, need to think of how to best apply a form of this business model.  Public agencies like ours don’t advertise, of course, but we do need to reach people with information, make it downloadable, web-browsable, relevant and useful. And so we also want to build a large customer base just the same as Google. 

For China, and for us at the Bay Program, the “What Would Google Do?” questions take the form of:

  • How can information best move down to the smallest units of decision-makers (i.e., citizens/local governments)?
  • How do we move innovation better, faster, and into more hands, at the same time learning from the interaction of having “every brain in the game”?  And how do we best harness the power of many eyes and minds?
  • What can we learn from others and how can we build an effective two-way street so that our customers can help shape the product?

There’s reason for hope in China’s new watershed program and other environmental programs.  They’re learning from us and they’re anxious to begin the hard work.  I was questioned by a Chinese Department of Agriculture colleague who works at the local level to encourage rural villages to install biogas digesters for human and animal manure.  He asked me, “Why aren’t these beneficial biogas digesters more widely adopted in American villages?” He had little understanding of how North American large-scale agriculture works and how it’s different from the small-scale village plot farming in China, but the man’s drive and passion to implement good environmental management practices in Chinese villages was clear. 

Change and environmental restoration won’t come easy in China.  It’ll be one village biogas digester at a time, along with a hundred different types of best management practices.  But it can come.  Like with the Chesapeake Bay, the Chinese will need to gird themselves for a long, hard struggle. But given time, a lot of hard work, and a chance for the young innovators to apply their skills and passion, change will come.

Read part two of this blog series.

About Lewis Linker - Lewis Linker is a modeling coordinator with the U.S. EPA at the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Keywords: watershed, Pollution

Question of the Week: What Are the Main Sources of Pollution to the Bay?

Welcome to this week’s installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week we'll take a question submitted through the Chesapeake Bay Program website and answer it here for all to read.

This week, Dave is trying to get a sense of “who is causing what” in relation to the Chesapeake Bay’s pollution issues. He wants to know: what are the main sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment to the Bay?

It’s important to know where Chesapeake Bay pollution comes from because we can use that knowledge to do our part to reduce the amount of pollutants each of us contributes to the Bay and its local waterways.


Nitrogen occurs naturally in soil, animal waste, plant material and the atmosphere. However, most of the nitrogen delivered to the Bay comes from:

  • Manure, emissions and chemical fertilizers from farmland and animal operations (36 percent)
  • Nitrogen oxide emissions from sources including vehicles, industries and electric utilities (27 percent)
  • Human waste treated and discharged from municipal wastewater treatment plants and wastewater discharged from industrial facilities (20 percent)
  • Chemical fertilizers applied to lawns, golf courses and other developed lands (11 percent)
  • Septic systems that treat household wastewater and discharge effluent to groundwater in the Bay watershed (5 percent)


Phosphorous, like nitrogen, occurs naturally in soil, animal waste and plant material. But these natural sources account for just 3 percent of the phosphorous loads to the Chesapeake Bay. Here are the major sources of the Bay’s phosphorus pollution:

  • The largest source is agriculture: manure and chemical fertilizers from farms contribute 45 percent of the total phosphorus load to the Bay.
  • Runoff from developed cities, towns and suburbs, as well as legacy sediments from streams, account for 31 percent of the Bay’s phosphorus pollution.
  • Municipal and industrial wastewater is the source of the remaining 21 percent of phosphorous loads.


Sediments are loose particles of clay, silt and sand. When suspended in the water, sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater bay grasses. As sediment settles to the bottom of the Bay and its rivers, it smothers bottom-dwelling animals (such as oysters). Sediment can also carry high concentrations of phosphorus and toxic chemicals.

Most of the sediment to the Bay comes from agriculture. Natural sources, stormwater runoff and erosion from streams make up the rest of the sources of sediment to the Bay and its local waterways.

While some sources of pollution may be larger than others, one source is not more important to prevent than any other. We must take any and all steps to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment loads to the Bay. Think about how your daily actions contribute pollution to the Bay and its rivers. Be sure to check out our Help the Bay tips to learn how you can do your part.


New York State Landowner Develops Wetland to Protect Local Stream, Chesapeake Bay

On the first Wednesday in December, landowner Ray Lewis proudly looked across one of three recently constructed wetlands on his upstate New York farm. Accompanied by several local organizations involved in the effort, Mr. Lewis explained to Jeff Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, why he had taken on such a project.

“My wife Loddie and I bought this farm several years ago and we’ve done lots of work to improve it. Building these wetlands will catch sediment and farm-related pollution before it enters our creek.”

Lewis was referring to Carr’s Creek, which borders approximately one mile of his farm before joining the upper Susquehanna River near Sidney, New York.

“These wetlands will also contribute to restoration and protection of the Chesapeake Bay,” Lewis said.

And what compelled Lewis and his wife – who are recent transplants from Philadelphia – to take on such an ambitious project? It started a few years ago, when Lewis attended a meeting of the Sidney Center Improvement Group. There, he learned how landowners could improve local stream conditions through watershed management: conserving and restoring natural areas to protect habitats, the health of local waterways and quality of life in communities.

“It started a couple of years ago when I attended a meeting of the Sidney Center Improvement Group, learned about watershed management and how landowners could improve local stream conditions,” explained Lewis.

After participating in a stream monitoring workshop sponsored by the Improvement Group, Izaak Walton League of America and the National Park Service, Lewis contacted the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition. He soon was approving a design for a series of three wetlands financed in part by the Soil and Water District and constructed by the Coalition.

The Chesapeake Bay Program got involved with this project, hundreds of miles removed from the Bay, when the Sidney Center Improvement Group contacted the Bay Program for assistance managing streams, according to the group's president, Joe Lally. The group was referred to the National Park Service, a partner organization with the Bay Program.

“And we have received hands-on assistance from the Park Service’s Rivers and Trails staff ever since,” Lally said.

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