Gerald Winegrad at the Bay Journal, Don’t fall for the happy talk: Bay leaders have failed us
At a carefully orchestrated and self- congratulatory annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council in October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Bay state governors and their representatives agreed to a one-year pause to recalibrate (read “abandon”) the Chesapeake cleanup plans under the EPA-dictated “pollution diet” — the Bay’s total maximum daily load, or TMDL.
While touting the great successes of the Bay Program and state initiatives, these putative leaders of the restoration failed to propose any new measures to achieve the TMDL-required reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment set in 2010.
In planning to again move the goal posts, the parties failed to detail the abject failure to meet the 2025 deadline for TMDL reductions. States collectively need to reduce Bay nitrogen loads by 72 million additional pounds to meet the 2025 goals after achieving a 30-million-pound reduction through 2021. Most must come from agriculture. Current state plans will meet only 42% of nitrogen reductions and 64% of phosphorus reductions by 2025.
This marks strike three after agreed-upon pollution reductions set under 1987 and 2000 Bay agreements were missed by wide margins. The EPA was forced by Clean Water Act lawsuits to impose the 2010 pollution diet and gave states 15 years to achieve the reductions to remove Bay waters from the impaired list.
Despite knowing for years that states were not meeting the dictated reductions, including the 60% reductions ordered by 2017, the EPA failed to impose any sanctions, sacrificing the Bay’s recovery on the altar of political expediency by refusing to enforce the TMDL. The EPA has a long list of possible sanctions at their disposal that were shared with the states in 2009.
The states’ failure to do what needs to be done to turn the tide is being met by an enforcement agency refusing to enforce the Clean Water Act. Instead, the EPA agreed on a recalibration delay that appears likely to condemn future generations to a Chesapeake no better, and possibly even worse, than it is today.
This capitulation occurs 39 years after the first Chesapeake Bay agreement was signed on Dec. 9, 1983, in which the EPA and Bay states solemnly pledged — in front of 700 enthusiastic witnesses — to restore the Chesapeake. I was one of those witnesses while serving as a state senator on the Chesapeake Bay Commission. Under the 1983 agreement, the newly established Chesapeake Executive Council was to “assess and oversee the implementation of coordinated plans to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay.”
Those bright-eyed optimistic witnesses at the 1983 signing would now be hugely disappointed and alarmed, as am I. If environmentalists had drummed up a doomsday scenario for failing to take the necessary actions for Bay restoration, we now have arrived at that nightmare scenario.
Flesh-eating diseases are threatening life and limb as the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria has proliferated in Bay waters, clearly a result of unchecked nutrient pollution and warming water temperatures.
Collapsed or collapsing fisheries — oysters, soft clams, shad, rockfish, sturgeon, crabs — are another result of this abysmal failure. The Bay’s critical underwater grasses are at a mere 67,470 acres, only 36% of the 185,000-acre goal to be achieved by 2010. The Chesapeake watershed lost 29,000 acres of tree canopy from 2014 to 2018, while the goal was to increase it by 2,400 acres by 2025.
The EPA data document a striking failure to meet Clean Water Act requirements. A little more than 70% of Bay waters remain polluted (impaired), down only marginally from 74% in 1985.
After 50 years of environmental advocacy, I was thoroughly disgusted by the October Executive Council meeting, where the capitulation was greenwashed to appear as progress.
I think that a large part of why the 'Bay Diet' has failed to achieve the goals set back in the beginning is that they were unrealistic to start with. With a dewy-eyed view of what the Bay was back in the good old days, clear water all the time, brimming with fish and oysters, the parties thought that surely $25 billion or so, the cost of a couple of aircraft carriers or a small fleet of F35 Raptors, they should surely be able to restore it to 50 or 60% of what they imagined. Never mind that people still had to live here (and the population of the region is growing, not declining), they need land to live on, water to use, food to eat, and they still pee and shit.
Another factor is the increasing institutionalization of the Bay cleanup. It's a big business, and business is good. It prospers regardless of whether the Bay is improving or not. In fact, having to "reassess" and find new goals is a good thing from that point of view. Imagine the shock of all the Bay cleanup crew if it were suddenly found that the Bay had somehow attained it goals, and they were unneeded.