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  • Writer's pictureKristin Lyman

Why The Chesapeake Bay Is So Hard to Fix

Getting into some environmental policy work here today.

After attending the Maryland Environmental Legislative Summit, I was compelled to dive into the "CESR" report. This report is a Comprehensive Evaluation of System Response (CESR) that summarizes why the progress toward Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) restrictions for pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus (mostly stemming from agricultural run off) and water quality standards have been "slower than expected and offers options for how progress can be accelerated" in the Chesapeake Bay since Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed by the governors of MD, PA and VA, the mayor of DC and the EPA in 1983.

In reading the report, I am struck by the similarities between the Chesapeake Bay and the human body. What makes nursing distinct from other health care roles is that it is the nurse's responsibility to care for the whole person--not to see the patient from strictly a medical model or a pharmaceutical perspective. Nurses administered medications, but they will also help you get up and out of bed and over to the toilet. Nurses are constantly assessing and re-evaluating their patient with regards to the effectiveness of care plans, and requesting orders from the docs to adjusting one way or another to benefit the patient.

The CESR report is an evaluation of the "care plans" that have been prescribed to the Chesapeake Bay (CB) with water quality being the only one that is legally enforceable thanks to the Clean Water Act (which had a massive update in 1972). The report spends time on teasing out the shortcomings of current care plans, such as addressing the difficulty of restoring dissolved oxygen in deep water channels in the Bay in order to benefit the "living resources" contained there, i.e. plants and animal life,

The report also explores if the questions being posed to assess the progress of the system response are the correct questions. Previously, the focus has been on "Are the planned actions being undertaken?" but as the efforts to preserve the Bay continue, the critical question is now seen as “Are the actions producing load reductions and improved estuary conditions?”


Four decades of efforts to manage nutrient and sediment pollutants have improved water quality conditions in some portions of the CB, but as the data shows, results are mixed with the two largest persisting problems being excess nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Bay as agricultural run off. Most of the improvements in decreasing the excess of these two nutrients have come in the form of waste water treatment plant upgrades.


In 1985, 27% of water in Bay met the Chesapeake Bay Program's water quality standards.

By 2020, there was increase of this metric, but only to the mid-30% range. Exploring this gap gap, this mismatch between actions taken and results reaped is the meat and potatoes of the CESR report.


Agriculture and livestock are two contributing factors that make efforts to protect the CB difficult to measure in their overall effectiveness and also make difficult the implementation of these efforts.  Nonpoint sources (i.e. local individual landowners/farmers) are offered incentives designed to encourage voluntary adoption of Best Management Practices (BMPs) by covering a portion of the costs of installation. The non-mandatory coordination across these voluntary adoptions of BMPs have proved to make it difficult to assess what's really working and what's not (and why).


And of course, regional increases in imported nutrients, e.g. the increases in livestock numbers, will persist as population growth dictates.


Another hiccup is that TMDL accounting framework directs water quality managers to count numerically practices implemented and thereby diverts attention from the question of whether those practices generate the predicted pollutant reductions.

(CESR suggests that the focus should shift from census taking of implemented practices to an accounting of load reductions. However, the "accounting of load reductions" is easier said that done as touched upon above.)


A concept called “Sandboxing” introduces as a "formalized way to test and evaluate the efficacy of new rules and programmatic approaches to nonpoint source or water quality management without disrupting the operation of existing implementation efforts." Sounds promising.


What catches my attention within the report is the “water quality response gap.” Confoundingly, even though pollutant load reduction has occurred, the reductions have not produced an increase in dissolved oxygen in most of the Bay’s habitats, esp. in the Bay’s deep waters. Observations show that deep channel dissolved oxygen levels have proven to be "relatively intransigent" to load reduction efforts. These load reduction efforts are the primary policy focus for the CBP's work--->


But it's really coming at CBP's efforts from all directions. Climate change has entered the picture and it's not going anywhere. Higher water temps offset roughly 6-34% of the water quality improvement from N reductions.


And so, the authors of CESR, the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee propose shifting focus of monitoring from attainment of water quality criteria to understanding processes underlying water quality response.


The complexities carry over to assessments of how protection efforts interact with living resources, such as fish, invertebrates and submerged aquatic vegetation as they all have differing responses to water quality improvements. Factors like structural aquatic habitat, nearshore habitat (wetlands, shoreline), commercial and recreational harvest, disease and water conditions (temp. and salinity) effects composition and abundance of living resources.

What comes to mind is the progression of physics from a strictlyNewtonian understanding of matter and motion to quantum physics which allowed for a description of the way objects behave that Newtonian physics could not account for. Hopefully, as science progresses, new models of understanding of how the Chesapeake Bay lives and breathes and the impacts we humans impart upon it are developed. We cannot save what we do not understand.

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