As home to the largest estuary in North America, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is vast and complex, covering 64,000 miles and including six states and the District of Columbia. The Bay has a land to water ratio of 14 to 1, five times greater than any other, and its airshed—the area of land over which airborne pollutants travel to enter the Bay—is nine times larger than the watershed, extending south to South Carolina, west to Indiana and north to Canada. The geography of the watershed is diverse, spanning the coastal plain and Piedmont plateau, marine and freshwater, urban and rural lands—and it's home to more than 1,600 local governments, all with different responsibilities for making land use decisions that can impact pollution in the watershed.
While the federal government and state agencies go about setting goals and establishing priorities, it is local governments that implement many of the measures to help reduce pollution. They operate wastewater treatment plants, manage urban stormwater, make zoning and land use decisions and enact ordinances. The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement acknowledged the vital role local governments play in protecting and restoring the Chesapeake ecosystem, as well as the need to support their efforts by broadening their knowledge and building capacity to act on issues related to water resources.
Local governments are on the frontlines of efforts to achieve water quality standards under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). In addition to achieving water quality goals, local governments are central to the success of our efforts to achieve many of the other goals established by the Watershed Agreement regarding fisheries, habitats, stewardship, land conservation, public access, environmental literacy and climate resiliency.
For many of our goals, we have very specific outcomes we want to accomplish, as well as indicators that give us a way to measure our progress. We’re in the process of finalizing work plans that identify actions we’ll take over the next two years toward meeting our long-term outcomes. We’ll assess that progress to make sure we stay on track by using these indicators, which serve as tools for holding ourselves accountable, and allowing the public to hold us accountable as well.
We have built a number of other tools that will assist the partnership in meeting its goals. A tool called BayFAST is being used by federal agencies with facilities located in the watershed to establish pollution reduction targets for their installations. This tool allows installations to evaluate a range of practices and estimate project costs for planning and budgetary purposes. We’re working to include monetized benefits as well, so local officials can make well-informed choices taking into account a broader set of considerations.
The partnership is acquiring high-resolution land cover data for the entire watershed, and working with local officials to acquire the most recent land use data. With updates to this information expected every three years, we’ll be able to see how the landscape in the Chesapeake Bay watershed changes over time. And when coupled with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data, we’re able to generate imagery that can be used to verify landscape features such as riparian forest buffers, which could significantly reduce the cost of BMP verification. Local governments, many of which have used scarce public funds to secure this information, will now have access to this high-resolution land cover and LiDAR data. Having this data available and updated on a regular basis could save local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars. Similarly, the general public and conservation organizations can use this information in developing and implementing a variety of conservation projects.
We are also working with states, local elected officials and government staff, and representatives from urban, suburban and agricultural sectors to develop recommendations on how to better engage local partners in the development of state Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and make those plans understandable at the local level. A newly formed task force is exploring whether Phase III WIPs should include local area targets and, if so, how these targets could be expressed to best inform local planning and decision-making.
Many challenges remain, however. With so many local governments throughout the watershed, how do we provide timely and useful information to local decision-makers? How do we share success stories, so local governments and communities can benefit from new approaches that have demonstrated their value? How do we spread innovation more quickly? The partnership’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC), many of whom are local officials themselves, is taking on several of these issues. They are participating in municipal and county meetings to get the word out and seek input, as well as trying to get local officials who have implemented successful approaches to share that information with their peers.
Through funding provided to the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office, local governments have received both financial and technical assistance. For the past three years, we’ve provided $5 million to support local governments and projects such as green roof rebates, rain barrel installations, environmental education and efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. From 2008 through 2014, funds made available by EPA to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) have supported a number of local projects, making nearly $9 million available to local governments and $18.4 million available to local organizations through four grant programs. Finally, CBPO has provided $740,000 in funding to the Environmental Finance Center to help local governments identify financing options to support urban and agricultural stormwater management.
The partnership understands the critical role local governments play in implementing many of the measures necessary to achieve our water quality goals and restore the living resources of this economically, culturally and environmentally important ecosystem.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Nobody enjoys paying taxes or fees to the government. Whether or not you believe in “big government,” April 15th is no one’s favorite day of the year. But it’s important to remember that when we put money into local governments, we benefit from what good government offers. It’s easy to feel more positive about paying a fee when you know the money is being put to good use.
Three Maryland towns – Berlin, Oxford and Salisbury – recently decided to be examples of what I’d call responsible, Bay-friendly government when each of them voluntarily established its own stormwater utility. A stormwater utility operates in a similar way to an electric or water utility; it generates funds by charging a fee for service and uses those funds to improve the community’s quality of life by updating sewer systems, addressing flooding issues, reducing polluted runoff in local waters and better planning for the impacts of climate change. These programs were not requirements from the state or federal government; rather, residents felt it was necessary and appropriate to create a funding source to deal with the problems facing their communities.
In January 2013, the town of Berlin passed legislation to reduce flooding and clean up local rivers and streams. The fees established by this legislation will generate almost $600,000 annually to improve stormwater management, repair existing infrastructure and reduce chronic flooding. Over time, this stormwater utility will save the town money by avoiding damage to the city’s infrastructure and reducing the impacts of flooding on local businesses.
In 2012, the town of Oxford – working with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), the Mid-Atlantic Environmental Finance Center and other partners – conducted an assessment of the town’s existing stormwater conditions. The recommendations of the assessment included the creation of a stormwater utility. Over the years, residents of Oxford have seen more areas flood on a more frequent basis and felt they had to find a solution. Town Manager Cheryl Lewis believes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will give flood insurance discounts to communities that take action to address stormwater issues themselves.
Salisbury recently became the latest Maryland town to voluntarily establish a stormwater utility through a unanimous decision by its city council. But these programs aren’t exclusive to Maryland – across the Chesapeake Bay region, local governments have taken charge to help protect their local waters. From Washington, D.C., to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Lynchburg, Virginia, cities large and small have not only established stormwater utilities but have also implemented stormwater credit programs to reward homeowners who install rain gardens, pervious pavement, green roofs and other methods of reducing the amount of runoff from their property.
In many of these cases, these programs are dealing not simply with nuisance flooding, but with chronic flooding that disrupts business and results in lost income. While some opponents of the stormwater utility approach refer to the fees as a “rain tax,” supporters see it as a way to protect local waterways and drinking water sources from polluted stormwater runoff.
It’s encouraging to see groups rise above the rhetoric, recognize there is a problem, and take positive action and responsibility to address it, instead of waiting to be forced to make a change. These issues affect their community, their homes and their businesses, and they are taking charge.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) will provide $4 million in grants to local governments to help reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
The Local Government Green Infrastructure Initiative will create grants of up to $750,000 to support local governments as they implement the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, a “pollution diet” that sets limits on the amount of harmful nutrients and sediment that can enter the Bay.
The grants will support the design and implementation of projects that use green infrastructure – such as road maintenance programs and flood plain management – to produce measureable improvements in the health of local waterways. Through the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee, local government representatives can share best practices and evolving strategies to achieve water quality goals.
The EPA will select localities that represent the diverse characteristics of local governments throughout the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed, including rural counties, predominantly agricultural communities, rapidly growing suburban localities, small cities and major urban municipalities.
NFWF will administer the grants through its Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. Since 2000, the fund has provided $68.9 million in grants for more than 700 projects throughout the Bay watershed.
For more information about this and other grant opportunities, visit NFWF’s website.
Harford County, Md., Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti has been elected chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC), a group of 21 local government officials who work to improve the role local governments play in Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts and broaden local government participation in the Bay Program.
Councilwoman Lisanti was elected to office in 2006, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed her to LGAC in 2009. During her professional career, she worked for the Maryland General Assembly, the Harford County Executive, and the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning. She has also served as city manager of Havre de Grace, Md. and as vice president and president of the Maryland Association of City and County Managers. Additionally, Lisanti is the executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway.
Lisanti will now lead LGAC in its main task of advising the Chesapeake Executive Council, the Bay Program’s leadership body, about the best ways to engage local governments in Bay restoration. LGAC's current focus is advising the Bay Program on how to involve local governments in the development of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.
"Seventeen million people call this watershed home and local government is the closest to those people," Councilwoman Lisanti said. "As a former city manager and now a small business manager and elected official, I feel keenly responsible for ensuring that local needs are identified and funded, and that clean-up efforts are focused on individual actions and shared responsibilities. Local government understands that Bay cleanup is all about our quality of life and economic development."