The Chesapeake Bay Program – What Is It? Why Does It Matter? What’s Next?

This article is part of MACo’s Policy Deep Dive series, where expert policy analysts explore and explain the top county policy issues of the day. A new article is added each week – read all of MACo’s Policy Deep Dives.

The Chesapeake Bay is the most defining feature of Maryland, and important work is being done to rehabilitate and preserve this natural wonder. 

The Chesapeake Bay is the most defining feature of Maryland. Geographically, economically, and culturally the bay has been woven into the state’s identity. But the Chesapeake is not Maryland’s alone; the District of Columbia, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and even New York all lie within the bay’s watershed. In an effort to preserve the bay and reverse decades of pollution, these jurisdictions, along with the federal government, created the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP). 

Background

The Chesapeake Bay Program is one of the earliest projects run by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Starting with a multi-year study in the later part of the 1970s, the EPA and state leaders have been coordinating efforts to better restore and preserve the bay’s watershed. One guiding principle behind this effort is that pollution in one part of the watershed always makes its way to the bay.

The CBP is defined by six major milestones:

  • Late 1970s to early 1980s: U.S. Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias (R-Md.) was able to get Congress to approve a $27 million study of the bay, led and staffed by EPA. The results of this study would lay the foundation of what would eventually become the Chesapeake Bay Program.
  • Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983: The governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the administrator of the EPA; and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission sign the one-page Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983. The agreement recognized that a cooperative approach was necessary to address the Bay’s pollution problems.
  • Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1987: For the first time, jurisdictions agreed to numeric goals to reduce pollution. “Among other goals, the agreement aimed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Bay by 40 percent by 2000. Agreeing to numeric goals with specific deadlines was unprecedented in 1987, but the practice has become a hallmark of the Bay Program.” (CBP)
  • Chesapeake 2000: This agreement was aimed at setting a more clear and defined plan for restoring the bay through 2010. This would be accomplished through 102 goals to reduce pollution, restore habitats, protect living resources, promote sound land use practices and engage the public in Bay restoration. Chesapeake 2000 was a major milestone as Delaware, New York and West Virginia—officially joined the Bay Program’s restoration efforts.
  • 2010 TMDL and WIPsWorking with each jurisdiction, the EPA established the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is a federal “pollution diet” that limits the amount of nutrients and sediment that can enter the Bay and its tidal rivers to meet water quality goals. In order to carry out the TMDL, each jurisdiction creates a Watershed Implementation Program (WIP) that details specific steps the jurisdiction will take to meet these pollution reductions by 2025.
  • The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement 2014 and 2020: The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement was signed in 2014 and amended in 2020. The agreement established 10 goals and 31 outcomes to restore the Bay, its tributaries, and the surrounding lands by 2025.

Where the Chesapeake Bay Stands Today:

Undoubtedly the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed are by far better off than when the program was first created in 1983. That being said, much work still remains before the Bay is fully restored to its natural state. Each jurisdiction has varied in its progress in meeting its goals.

Maryland

According to Maryland’s 2021 Annual Progress report,

Since 1985, it has been estimated that Maryland has reduced its nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment loads reaching the Chesapeake Bay by 35 million pounds per year nitrogen (N), 3.8 million pounds per year phosphorus (P), and 725 million pounds per year sediment (TSS) but we still have some more work to do in order to meet our 2025 target….

…As Maryland continues to focus on meeting its reduction targets that were updated to include the impacts of climate change, it is estimated that the State has met its sediment goals but will need to reduce an additional 6 million lbs of nitrogen and 120,000 lbs of phosphorus.

Clearly, Maryland has made incredible progress, but more work remains. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the two major pollutants that still need to be reduced. The wastewater and agricultural sectors will be the primary targets for reducing levels of both pollutants.

Other Jurisdictions

The other six jurisdictions within the CBP have also made progress, although to varying degrees. Pennsylvania has the most progress before meeting its goals under the latest agreement. The Susquehanna River cuts the state in half and remains the bay’s largest source of freshwater. The river runs through traditionally industrial and agricultural communities, picking up pollution from large swaths of the state and carrying it downstream. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which advocates for a cleaner bay and monitors the restoration effort, said in their 2021 State of the Blueprint,

Pennsylvania is currently not on track to meet it’s any of its pollution reduction goals. The report calls for a, “massive influx of technical and financial assistance to provide farmers the resources to implement conservation practices.’

The CBP and County Government:

Unlike other jurisdictions, Maryland’s counties have a major role to play in helping restore the bay. Maryland’s Phase I and II WIPs initially had county-specific metrics, but this method was an outlier from other jurisdictions which implemented a sector-specific approach. Starting with the Phase III WIP, which was approved in August 2019, Maryland shifted its focus to a sector-specific model. These new sectors include agriculture, public sector land (natural), stormwater, and wastewater. As counties are the primary operators of both stormwater and wastewater treatment facilities, they remain major stakeholders in the restoration effort. MS4 permits required to operate stormwater and wastewater treatment facilities have conditions that overlap with the goals set in the latest 2014/2020 agreement, hence pushing counties to help meet the state’s overall goal.

Counties also remain active participants in the CBP through the Local Leadership Workgroup (LLWG). The LLWG was established in 2014 after the signing of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and exists to accomplish the local leadership outcome outlined in the Agreement.

Additionally, Appendix C of the Phase III WIP outlines possible goals at the individual county level to help reduce pollution and meet the CBP’s 2025 goals.

Conclusion:

The Chesapeake Bay Program represents a comprehensive network of stakeholders, all guided by the singular mission of rehabilitating and preserving the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. The work of the group is far from over, and Maryland’s counties still have a major role to play. The real test though will come from Pennsylvania, which has the most progress to make and is responsible for a large portion of the pollution still entering the bay. It is clear that all jurisdictions and their localities need to keep up the noble effort of a healthier Chesapeake Bay. 

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