Thursday, October 28, 2021

Chesapeake Bay Program: Unusual Weather Conditions Continue To Impact Chesapeake Bay Water Quality

On October 26, the federal
Chesapeake Bay Program announced an estimated 33 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries met water quality standards attainment during the 2017—2019 assessment period. 

This score is lower than the previous assessment period (2016—2018), when Bay water quality standards attainment was estimated to be 38 percent. 

Experts mainly attribute this decline to unusually wet weather in 2018 and 2019. 

The Chesapeake Bay Program strives to reach 100 percent attainment of water quality standards to support the survival, growth and reproduction of aquatic species important to a healthy Bay. 

Currently, 67 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters are likely to be impaired.

“We appreciate the work of our partner jurisdictions and local communities as they take actions to reduce pollution to local waters and the Bay," said Diana Esher, Acting Regional Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency, Mid-Atlantic Region.  "EPA will continue to provide substantial financial and technical support to close the gap in meeting goals while increasing the percentage of rivers and streams meeting water quality standards. EPA and its partners are committed to tackling climate change and countering the impacts it has on the Bay.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program evaluates water quality standards attainment using three parameters: dissolved oxygen, water clarity or underwater grass abundance, and chlorophyll a (a measure of algae growth). 

Over the period of 2017—2019, a decline in dissolved oxygen was noted in the deep water (depths between 15—50 feet) and deep channel habitats (depths between 50—175 feet) of the Bay, compared to the previous assessment period (2016-2018). It is believed these declines are directly caused by short-term fluctuations in weather and the river flows that occur as a result. 

Generally, when the watershed receives more rain, river flows increase, bringing more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution into the Bay, leading to increased algae growth and a decline in dissolved oxygen.

Water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries is heavily influenced by nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution delivered from the watershed and can vary year-to-year due to a number of factors including land use, fertilizer and manure use, wastewater and septic discharges, and river flow. 

The seven watershed jurisdictions (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia), in coordination with local governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations and individuals have installed pollution-reducing practices to lower the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment entering waterways. 

However, management actions taken to decrease pollution from point sources (e.g., wastewater treatment plants) may immediately show detectable pollution changes, but in regard to the implementation of conservation practices for nonpoint sources, there is often a time lag (e.g., years to decades) in measuring their impact on improving water quality and the health of the Bay.

The conservation practices reported by the seven watershed jurisdictions, along with land use and manure and fertilizer information, are entered into a sophisticated suite of modeling tools to estimate the progress that each jurisdiction is making in meeting their individual nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollutant reduction goals as outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL).

According to these computer simulations, pollution controls put into place between 2009 and 2020 are estimated to have lowered overall nitrogen by 13 percent, overall phosphorus by 14 percent and sediment by 4 percent. 

Over this time period, it is believed that nitrogen and phosphorus reductions came primarily from improvements to wastewater treatment facilities throughout the watershed and efforts from the agricultural sector have helped to lower sediment.

Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to having in place 100 percent of the conservation practices that would achieve all of the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions necessary to meet the goals outlined in the Bay TMDL by 2025. 

As of 2020, conservation practices are currently in place to achieve 47 percent of the nitrogen reductions, 64 percent of the phosphorus reductions and 100 percent of the sediment reductions.

“While we are making progress in achieving the water quality standards of the Bay, it is important that all Chesapeake Bay Program partners prioritize and quicken the pace of funding, technical assistance, the adoption of conservation practices at the local level and updating the science and models that support our decision support tools," said Ed Dunne, Chief, Standards and TMDL Branch, Water Quality Division, Department of Energy and Environment, District of Columbia and Co-Chair, Chesapeake Bay Program Water Quality Goal Implementation Team.  "Only then will we meet the 2025 Watershed Implementation Plan Outcome of having all practices in place to meet our pollutant reduction targets.”

Click Here for the complete announcement.

For more information, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program website.


Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration Alison Prost issued this statement in response to the Chesapeake Bay Program report--

The most recent data from the Chesapeake Bay Program estimates that only a third of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers are healthy enough to support essential aquatic species. The score is lower than the previous assessment, which the Bay Program attributes to unusually wet weather.

“That only 33 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers are healthy should be a wake-up call. It is true that water quality in the Bay is, and will always be, influenced by rainfall, however, it is disappointing that EPA continues to let Pennsylvania fall behind on its clean water commitments and instead blames the rain.

“It’s time EPA enforce the Clean Water Act, hold Pennsylvania accountable, and account for the additional challenges of climate change. Climate change is real and making saving the Bay harder.

“The good news is that the pollution reduction efforts needed to save the bay, mitigate climate change, and increase resiliency are one in the same. By holding Pennsylvania accountable and increasing investments in pollution reductions now, especially from agriculture in the Commonwealth, the Biden Administration’s EPA can still make saving the Bay an international model for environmental restoration and climate change mitigation. The clock is ticking.”

For more on Chesapeake Bay-related issues in Pennsylvania, visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation-PA webpage.  Click Here to sign up for Pennsylvania updates (bottom of left column).  Click Here to support their work.

Also visit the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership to learn how you can help clean water grow on trees.

CBF has over 275,000 members in Bay Watershed.

October Is Buffer Month!

Penn State Extension is joining the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council, who declared October as Riparian Buffer Month, as an opportunity to build awareness and familiarity of forested riparian buffers while sharing the applicability of these sustainable practices in a variety of settings.  Read more here.

PA Chesapeake Bay Plan

For more information on Pennsylvania’s plan, visit DEP’s Chesapeake Bay Office webpage.

How Clean Is Your Stream?

DEP’s Interactive Report Viewer allows you to zoom in on your own stream or watershed to find out how clean your stream is or if it has impaired water quality using the latest information in the draft 2020 Water Quality Report.

(Photo: Conowingo Dam after a significant rain event.)

[Posted: October 28, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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