Opinion: Maryland’s Bay Clean Up Plan Lags Behind

The Chesapeake Bay states recently released their final Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs), which are federally required to demonstrate how each state will meet its clean water commitments for restoring the Bay by 2025.

The multi-state clean-up effort, officially known as the Chesapeake Bay TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), was a response to the Bay’s steady decline in health almost a decade ago — with widespread dead zones and a steep decline in fish and shellfish populations. The Bay’s poor health at the time was a result of about three decades’ worth of voluntary agreements that were not adequately enforced or implemented by Bay states.

Now, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan  is calling on Pennsylvania to step up its cleanup efforts. And while we commend Governor Hogan for holding other states accountable, Maryland’s own plan is far from perfect.

In fact, Maryland lags far behind Virginia and the District of Columbia in progress toward reducing nitrogen pollution. Maryland’s plan claims it will exceed its 2025 target but it gives few details on what the state will change in order to get there, especially given the all-time low level of staffing at state agencies.

In the past decade, we’ve seen encouraging signs that the Bay is recovering, including an increase in blue crabs and aquatic grasses. But the states must ramp up this work through 2025 and beyond so we don’t lose the progress we’ve made under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL so far.

For a reminder of how fragile the recovery is, look at the massive dead zones plaguing the Bay this year,  the result both of flagging progress by key states and the more frequent, intense rainfalls climate scientists have been warning would afflict our region.

While Maryland has more ambitious goals than Pennsylvania overall, it offers few details on how it expects to increase the rate of the state’s cleanup by six times the current efforts. Maryland’s plan primarily outlines programs and plans already in place and offers little new in programs or funding.

In fact, the plan claims the state has enough funding already — despite the fact that, for the past two years, Maryland counties and dozens of nonprofit organizations have been telling the Maryland Department of the Environment they need more funding, capacity, and technical assistance to be successful. The plan also admits population growth, forest loss, and climate change are challenges that it does not have additional capacity to address.

By 2025, climate change impacts in Maryland are expected to dump more than 2.2 million pounds of nitrogen and 114,000 pounds of phosphorus in the Bay. Maryland committed to drafting another plan in 2022 to address this additional pollution, but that only gives Maryland three years to reduce the expected pollution. Virginia specifically adjusted its pollution reduction targets to account for additional pollution from climate change; Maryland should have done the same.

Maryland’s plan also lags behind Virginia when it comes to incentivizing permanent practices on agricultural land, such as stream reforestation, wetland restoration, and grazing conservation. Forest buffers are one of the most effective ways to prevent nitrogen pollution from entering local waterways, but Maryland only expects to have about one-fifth of the forest buffers for which Virginia has planned.

Maryland has ambitious targets for agriculture pollution reduction, but it focuses too much on funding temporary, annual practices, like cover crops. Only permanent practices would ensure that agricultural pollution remain low after 2025.

To achieve the 2025 goals, the Chesapeake Bay not only needs results from each state, there must also be a clear plan with the necessary resources, regulations, and assistance. But while Maryland included statewide pollution reduction targets for each sector, it did not include any local numeric county-level planning targets that would create clear lines of accountability and transparency. Pollution projections for counties are useful but do not provide clear targets with clear plans to produce clear results.

We’re glad Maryland has committed to its 2025 goals, but it needs to show how it will provide the necessary funding and capacity currently lacking. It’s time Maryland got serious about its clean-up plans and stop pushing the hard work down the road. With increasing extreme weather events and rising sea levels, we don’t have time to waste.

— KATLYN SCHMITT AND BEN ALEXANDRO

The writers are, respectively, staff attorney for Waterkeepers Chesapeake and water program director for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

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