Local governments are playing a pivotal role in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay: managing stormwater runoff, promoting low-impact development, upgrading wastewater treatment plants and more. We spoke with District of Columbia Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, recently-elected Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC), to learn about her background in local government work and hear her perspective on the importance of local engagement.
Chesapeake Bay Program: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and the work that you do.
DC Councilmember Brianne Nadeau: I grew up in Michigan, on the Great Lakes. I grew up in an environmentalist family, and I’ve always really been drawn to areas near water, so it’s a natural path to the work in the Bay. For about six years I worked for Congressman John Sarbanes, and got to work with a team that works on the Bay back then, so this is a little bit like coming back home.
CBP: What led you to go into local government work?
BN: I had always been involved in this type of activity—I was a Girl Scout from a young age, all the way through the Gold Award. I did that for 13 years. But I actually got involved in local politics at age 11, on a school board race, and I stayed involved until now. When I first moved to the District of Columbia in 2002, I started getting to know the neighborhoods and civic associations, and by 2006 I had already run for an advisory neighborhood commissioner spot. I was able to do that for two terms before taking a little break and regrouping to do this.
For me, it’s always been this core value of looking for work and wanting to leave things better than I found them—which is the Girl Scout way—and that coupled with my interest in environmentalism has really been a great way to tie all this together for LGAC.
CBP: What’s your favorite part of this type of work, or a favorite memory you have?
BN: I consider myself sort of a stormwater runoff nerd, so when the District of Columbia was having a conversation around the cisterns that we have to build for our combined sewer system, and the community conversations around that, that was actually really exciting for me—although most people would probably find that kind of boring.
Back when I was working in the Maryland delegation, we did a lot of work on environmental education—that was Congressman Sarbanes’ big thing, his environmental education bill—and so we got to work on what we called the watershed cards. He had one card for each congressional district that he could pass out to his colleagues and show them how their district relates to the Bay. That was actually a very cool project; I spent a lot of time on it and I think it had an impact.
CBP: How do you see local governments playing a role in the Bay restoration effort?
BN: Local governments are the ones who are really going to be implementing all of this. As we move through the different stages of the Watershed Implementation Plans, local governments not only are providing input, but also learning what their role has to be in terms of implementation. I think there’s a lot of education that we have to do.
LGAC is really focused on this two-way communication, and constantly reminding the Executive Council that we’re here, that we want to be in the loop, that we want to have input and also simply providing that input. As a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and now a councilmember, I’m definitely in the habit of reminding people about local voices.
CBP: Describe how you got involved with LGAC.
BN: I’m a mayoral appointee to LGAC, so I began my term last year when I was a new councilmember in the District of Columbia. It’s been smooth sailing since then. I’ve just jumped in and tried to read everything I could find about all the work that we’re doing, and I’m building relationships with all of the members and CAC [the Bay Program’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee] as well.
CBP: What are you looking forward to about where LGAC is going?
BN: I’m just excited that this is such a pivotal time in the Watershed Implementation Plans. To be the chair of LGAC now is a great opportunity just to ensure that those local voices are being heard.
CBP: Has anything surprised you about working with LGAC so far?
BN: It may not be surprising, but it’s definitely important to note how much information we still need to get out there to our local governments. And that isn’t only the role of LGAC, of course; the states and the federal government have to do that with us. But we have a lot to teach folks about their role. It’s a big job.
CBP: What do you see as the top priorities for LGAC?
BN: My number one priority is to ensure that LGAC’s voice is heard throughout the Midpoint Assessment and the Phase III WIPs. Those are the two big things we’re focused on this year, and really just not missing a single opportunity to provide input.
CBP: Is there anything else you want to add?
BN: Local governments are the ones who are going to be the on the ground implementers of these plans, so we have to make sure we give them the resources and assistance they need to get it done.
CBP: And finally, what does the Chesapeake Bay mean to you?
BN: The Chesapeake Bay is a place for recreation, a place for commerce, a place for us to enjoy the ecosystem. But for me, I think the most important thing is that it’s a place that generations after us will have to enjoy.
Today, the Chesapeake Bay Program released a collection of short-term plans aimed at protecting and restoring the Bay, its rivers and streams and the surrounding lands. These twenty-seven work plans outline specific actions our partners intend to take over the next two years in their work toward achieving the goals and outcomes of the landmark Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
Each two-year work plan addresses one or more of the Watershed Agreement’s thirty-one interconnected outcomes and outlines short-term actions critical to our work, integrating both new and long-held strategies to create an environmentally and economically sound Chesapeake Bay. Actions outlined in the plans will help maintain the health of local waters, sustain abundant fish and wildlife populations, restore vital habitats, foster engaged and diverse communities through increased public access and education, conserve farmland and forests and improve the climate resiliency of the region. The plans will help the Bay Program partnership track implementation, evaluate progress and manage adaptively to foster continuous improvement.
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement was signed in June 2014 by representatives from the six watershed states, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the federal government. In July 2015, the Chesapeake Executive Council announced the release of a set of twenty-five strategies outlining our long-term approach for implementation, monitoring and assessing progress toward the Watershed Agreement’s goals. Our work plans outline the specific, short-term steps our partners plan to take over the next two years toward meeting those long-term goals, and represent the next step in a continued commitment toward a healthy and vibrant Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The work plans and a summary of participating partners can be found online on the Management Strategies and Work Plans Dashboard.
Many residents of the region know that pollutants in rivers like the James, Potomac and Susquehanna can end up in the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, the Chesapeake Bay watershed—or the area of land over which water flows into the nation’s largest estuary—stretches from Cooperstown, New York, to Norfolk, Virginia. Less well known is the fact that the Bay’s so-called “airshed” extends much farther: particles of air pollution emitted as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, can reach the waters of the Bay.
At 570,000 square miles, the Bay’s airshed is nine times as large as its watershed. Because pollution emitted into the air can be carried over long distances by wind and weather, it should come as no surprise that emissions associated with hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have been found in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., or that emissions from gas, coal and oil-powered machines in Tennessee or North Carolina can lead to algae blooms in the waters of Maryland and Virginia.
Scientists estimate that one-third of the total nitrogen that pollutes the Bay comes from the air, often in the form of nitrogen oxides generated by power plants or machines. Through a process known as atmospheric deposition, six to eight percent of this airborne nitrogen falls onto the water directly, sometimes as dry particles and sometimes attached to raindrops, snowflakes or sleet. The rest falls onto the land, where it soaks into groundwater or washes into rivers and streams. Once in the water, nitrogen can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life.
But there is evidence that regulations meant to curb air pollution are having a positive impact on our air and our water. In 2014, for instance, researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science traced a drop in the amount of nitrogen found in some Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia waterways to the Clean Air Act. In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the drop in the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen observed in the region over the past two decades can also be attributed to the Clean Air Act. And in 2016, our own water quality modeling experts confirmed we are still seeing benefits of the Clean Air Act emerge as estimates of the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen continue to fall.
This means efforts to curb air pollution across the nation have curbed water pollution in our watershed. In 1985, an estimated 52.2 million pounds of nitrogen fell directly onto the region’s waters. Thirty years later, this number has dropped to 17.88 million pounds, and data show that pollution-reducing practices put in place between 2009 and 2015 in an effort to meet the Bay’s “pollution diet” have reduced the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen 20 percent.
Between 2014 and 2015, underwater grass abundance in the Chesapeake Bay rose 21 percent, bringing underwater grasses in the nation’s largest estuary to the highest amount ever recorded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science aerial survey and surpassing the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2017 restoration target two years ahead of schedule.
Aerial imagery collected between May and November of 2015 revealed a total of 91,621 acres of underwater grasses across the region. Experts attribute this spike to the recovery of wild celery and other species in the fresher waters of the upper Bay, the continued expansion of widgeon grass in the moderately salty waters of the mid-Bay and a modest recovery of eelgrass in the very salty waters of the lower Bay.
In the Elk River, for instance, grass beds that had been decimated after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee hit the region in 2011 recovered in 2015. While the beds were not as dense as those seen the season before the storms pushed water-clouding nutrient and sediment pollution into the northeastern Maryland waterway, they were larger and more diverse than previously observed and surpassed the river’s 1,648-acre restoration target. Wild celery, whose seed pods and roots offer food to migrating waterfowl, was the dominant species detected.
Because freshwater species like wild celery are resilient, continued improvements in water quality are expected to support the continued expansion of these grasses. In spite of this good news, experts advise cautious optimism about the state of underwater grasses overall: because widgeon grass is known as a “boom and bust” species whose abundance can rise and fall from year to year, the widgeon-dominant spike we have seen is not guaranteed to persist in future seasons.
“While much of the grass that accounts for the 2015 expansion was widgeon grass—a species that is often described as a boom or bust plant—I think we can take heart in the fact that it boomed last summer—marking three consecutive years of growth,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Biologist and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Workgroup Chair Brooke Landry in a media release. “Be it freshwater wild celery or mid-Bay widgeon grass, submerged aquatic vegetation would not expand so rapidly and into areas where it hasn’t been mapped before if water quality wasn’t improving. This report shows that we are making strides on Bay restoration and truly impacting the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution entering our waterways. As we continue to provide conditions necessary for our natural resources to thrive, their resilience will increase and they’ll have a much better chance of persisting through major weather events or other challenges.”
Underwater grass beds are critical to the Bay ecosystem. They offer food to small invertebrates and migratory waterfowl; shelter young fish and blue crabs; and keep our waters clear and healthy by absorbing excess nutrients, trapping suspended sediment and slowing shoreline erosion. For these reasons, the Bay Program has committed to achieving and sustaining 185,000 acres of underwater grasses in the Bay, with a target of 130,000 acres by 2025.