How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
William Shakespeare, Othello, Act II, Scene 3
Between fast food restaurants and speed-of-light cell phones, we live in a culture of instant gratification. But the environment around us doesn’t operate that way. Instead, it is slow to respond to changes—like the upsets or imbalances created by human activity.
Scientific evidence shows that many of the pollution-reducing practices we are placing on the ground now may take years to show visible improvements in water quality. One reason? Pollutants can be persistent. French and Canadian researchers, for instance, tracked the movement of fertilizer through a plot of land over the course of three decades. While more than half of the fertilizer applied to the land in 1982 was absorbed by agricultural crops like wheat and sugar beet, 12 to 15 percent remained in the soil. The researchers predicted it would take an additional 50 years before the fertilizer fully disappeared from the environment.
Much of the farmland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed sits over groundwater, now contaminated with high levels of nitrates following years of fertilizer applications above ground. Work by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has shown that it will take a decade for this nitrogen-laden groundwater to flow into rivers, streams and the Bay. On the Delmarva Peninsula, where deeper, sandy aquifers underlie the Coastal Plain, this so-called “lag-time” could take 20 to 40 years.
So what implications could lag-times have for the Bay restoration effort? Last year, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) released a report about the lag-time phenomenon. The team of experts concluded that lag-times will affect public perception of our progress toward meeting the pollution diet set forth by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
The TMDL requires the six Bay states and the District of Columbia to implement their proposed pollution-reduction measures by 2025. There may be an expectation on the part of the general public and our elected officials that once these measures are fully implemented, the Bay will have met its water quality goals. But now we know that it may take some time before we can make that claim. As 2025 approaches, we must remind the public that lag-times exist and ask for their patience in seeing a healthy Bay. Because through patience—and vigilance—the Bay will be restored.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy, endorsement, or action.
It is said that the environmental movement began with the first Earth Day. Four decades later, we have seen signs of environmental improvement: rivers no longer catch fire, chemical dumps have been cleaned up and we are breathing cleaner air. But even as we solve past environmental problems, we place renewed pressure on our ecosystem.
In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, our population has doubled over the past 60 years, reaching almost 18 million people. With that population increase comes a rise in polluted runoff from roads, parking lots and farm fields and more discharges from septic systems and wastewater treatment plants. These non-point sources of pollution push nutrients and sediment into our waterways, where they create algal blooms and low-oxygen dead zones, smother our underwater grasses and reduce fish habitat. Our actions on land continue to impact our environment, creating an ecosystem that is dangerously out of balance. Now, pollution is much more insidious.
When we look at the efforts made to restore the Bay and its watershed, we can see what works and what doesn’t. We know that technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants can lower nitrogen and phosphorous discharges, improving water quality and, in some cases, boosting the growth of underwater grasses. We know that controls on power plant and vehicle emissions can reduce the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, lowering nutrient pollution in the Bay. And there is evidence that planting cover crops, controlling fertilizer applications and restricting livestock from streams can reduce agricultural runoff and restore local waters.
While these actions demonstrate success, there are other actions that have not led to such improvements. But these experiences are equally important. The environment is a complex system, and what works in one location might not work as well in another. The same practice implemented in the Piedmont, for instance, will not create the same results as that practice implemented on the Coastal Plain. And some areas experience “lag-times” between the implementation of conservation practices and an improvement in water quality. Knowing what factors may cause these differences is important, so we can adjust our behavior and adapt our approaches to local conditions. As we work to restore the watershed, we must constantly ask ourselves, “What have we learned?” And we must know that how we apply these lessons will provide the key to restoring rivers, streams and the Bay.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy, endorsement, or action.
Last month, I had the chance to attend the two-day Mid-Atlantic Volunteer Monitoring Conference in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The conference was hosted by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and brought volunteers, environmental organizations and governmental agencies together to discuss the ins and outs of water quality monitoring, from sample collection and analysis to the management, presentation, visualization and communication of data.
Water quality monitoring is at the heart of Chesapeake Bay restoration. This critical data helps us determine how well our pollution control measures are working. Chesapeake Bay Program partners collect a huge amount of water quality data from nearly 270 tidal and non-tidal monitoring stations across the watershed. The cost of this work—approximately $10 million each year—is borne by federal agencies, watershed states, local jurisdictions and organizations like the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.
While this monitoring network is extensive and the data it generates is rich, it can’t tell us what water quality is like in some of our smaller creeks and streams. But this gap has been slowly filled over the past 30 years, as non-profit organizations have grown in size and sophistication and have developed their own water quality monitoring capabilities. Some of these volunteer monitoring groups, along with a growing number of counties and municipalities, have even established sample collection and analysis procedures comparable to those used by state and federal agencies.
Local citizens want to know what water quality is like in the creeks, streams and rivers that run through their own communities. Many want to know what’s going on—sometimes literally—in their own backyards. And government can’t do it all. So we have come to recognize the value of volunteer-collected local monitoring data, and we use this data to supplement our own. Last month’s volunteer monitoring conference convinced me that we must continue to encourage these local efforts if we are to succeed in restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
We know the environment is changing. There are visible signs all around us, and a substantial body of unambiguous data that confirms it. Sea levels are rising. Extreme storms are more frequent and destructive. Droughts and wildfires plague areas around the world. Wetlands are disappearing. Tree species are moving beyond their traditional range. Animal species are migrating at new times and to new places as average temperatures rise. Pests are showing up in places where they have never existed before. Environmental conditions are changing. It doesn’t really matter what you call it—it’s happening, and we must adapt.
One can argue about whether or not these changes have been caused by humans. I believe there is sufficient evidence to show that human activity is responsible for a good part of it. But the question remains: how can we minimize the negative impacts of these changing environmental conditions?
How do we respond? How do we address these changes within the context of Chesapeake Bay restoration? Chris Pyke, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), suggests that we look ahead, anticipate these changes and adapt our approaches to them. We need to look at the pollution control measures and management strategies we are developing and determine if they will continue to be effective in light of our changing future. The Bay Program has incorporated an adaptive management decision-making framework that uses scientific data as the basis for responding to these changing conditions. If we don’t continue on this adaptive management track, the money we have spent to control pollution will have been wasted.
Call it climate change. Call it global warming. Call it sea level rise. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. We know environmental conditions are changing. We ignore it at our peril.
I enjoy kayaking—a lot. In fact, I like kayaking more than any other outdoor activity. And a recent weekend spent entirely on the water—first on the South River, and later on a tributary to the Nanticoke—felt like heaven.
The weekend started with the South River Days Kayak, Wade-In and Picnic. More than 60 people participated in the celebration of the South River, connecting with the waterway on kayaks, a canoe and a stand-up paddleboard. The colorful regatta and community spirit reminded us that we must continue our work to ensure we have clean water for fishing, swimming and public health and well-being.
Then, I joined a host of Chesapeake Bay professionals—from Nikki Tinsley, former chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee, to Al Todd and Lou Etgen from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay—on Chicone Creek, which flows into the Nanticoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Tom Horton was also on board. The former Baltimore Sun reporter and current Salisbury University professor is an encyclopedia of facts and stories about the Bay. He spoke about the area’s history, its early settlements, its local characters, its plant and animal life and the current state of its environment.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in Vienna, Md., and enjoyed the hospitality of Mayor Russ Brinsfield, who let us use his front lawn and shade tree. In addition to being Vienna’s mayor, Russ is also a farmer, the director of the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center and a member of the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee. Russ has a long and deep history with the Bay.
Later that afternoon, we watched a large barge being pushed downriver by a tug and were reminded that the Nanticoke is a working river. Our waters can serve a variety of purposes—but can do so only as long as we protect them.
As we know from our years at school, it is important to measure our progress, whether it pertains to our ability to learn and use information or to our work restoring water quality. Over the past 30 years, many non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and even individuals have used grades to measure how well we are doing in correcting environmental problems. In Maryland, former state Sen. Bernie Fowler uses his annual Paxtuent River Wade-In to bring attention to the need for continued vigilance on cleaning up our waterways. As a youth, Sen. Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see his sneakers; this is now his modern-day yardstick, known as the “Sneaker Index.”
Each year, Sen. Fowler wades into the Patuxent until he can no longer see his shoes. He comes out of the river and measures the water line on his denim overalls. Over the years, this number has become the “grade” for the river’s water quality. A number of other organizations publish similar report cards for different water bodies. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Blue Water Baltimore and others have developed sophisticated methods of measuring the health of our waterways, issuing letter grades to show how well or how poorly our efforts are working to improve the environment.
But, just like our report cards from school, water quality report cards don’t tell the whole story. While they can tell us what conditions are right now—whether we did well or poorly in a particular course or over the school year—there are a lot of factors that can influence a waterway’s score from one year to the next. We are making progress, although at times we may see setbacks. And as Sen. Fowler reminds us each year, we must stick to it, redouble our efforts and work even harder if we want to get and keep a passing grade.
I bristle when I hear people refer to stormwater utility fees as a “rain tax.” In fact, these fees generate critical funding for green practices that mitigate the effects that roads, parking lots and rooftops have on our environment.
Businesses and residents have been adding impervious surfaces to the landscape for decades, preventing rain from percolating into the ground, where it would otherwise recharge groundwater and provide base flow for nearby streams. Instead, these impervious surfaces increase the volume and velocity of rainwater, causing flooding, damaging property and destroying local waterways. I am not trying to fix blame, but to inform folks about the problems associated with stormwater management and the best ways to correct them.
We are learning how to better manage stormwater by mimicking natural processes. We have found, for instance, that by directing rainwater from our roofs, sidewalks and parking lots into rain barrels or rain gardens, we can keep it out of our storm drains, reducing pressure on aging stormwater infrastructure. On large commercial and institutional properties, we can construct green roofs to absorb the rain so it doesn’t need to be discharged to a concrete system that is expensive to build and maintain. Green roofs can even increase the life of roofing systems and provide insulation, reducing heating and cooling costs.
Stormwater utility fees provide an equitable means for generating revenue based on the amount of impervious surface. The revenue can then be used to make these improvements. Most utilities also provide exemptions from these fees for homeowners or businesses that adopt these green practices. By promoting these practices, the costs of property damage associated with flooding are reduced, which can reduce the overall tax burden as well. Mother Nature teaches best and, in the end, it costs less.