The Restoration of the Bay Starts with Local Streams & Communities

By Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director

As Chesapeake Bay Awareness week is upon us, I wish I were filled with more hope, but instead I feel frustration. More than thirty years of work to save the bay and expenditures of billions of dollars have not accomplished what is needed. More than 60% of our local rivers and rivers are not meeting basic water quality standards, let alone being anywhere close to the aim of the Clean Water Act: for these waterways to be swimmable, drinkable, and fishable. We have the science and the laws we need to have healthy local streams, creeks and rivers. What we lack is implementation, enforcement and oversight.

The Chesapeake Bay is the nation’s largest estuary and truly a national treasure. The 64,000 square mile watershed spans six states and the District of Columbia. Those driving from Virginia to New York are often amazed to see the signs marking the remarkable span of this watershed and the range of beaches, to cities, to mountains, to farm fields that are all a part of this incredible watershed. So why are we having so much trouble protecting it?

First, we have the wrong focus. Water quality is a very local issue. By focusing on the macro — the bay — we are leaving out the micro level of what’s happening to our local rivers and streams. This can allow some streams to be clean, but others to be written off as too difficult, too expensive, or simply too polluted and not worth the cost of restoring. But what about these communities — our communities? If we focus instead at the local (micro) level on the streams, rivers and creeks in every Chesapeake community, we can and will ensure that we have a clean and healthy bay. We will also ensure vital, thriving, healthy communities across the watershed.

Second, we continue to make the same mistakes in relying on voluntary measures and throwing money at the problem rather than ensuring enforceable requirements. Voluntary measures and financial commitments are responsible for some improvements, but these measures alone will simply never get us the pollution reductions required to achieve clean rivers and streams across the watershed. In a blatant example of this, the state of Maryland gave up its enforcement authority in a settlement agreement that lets Exelon, the owner of Conowingo Dam, off the hook for the next 50 year, in exchange for pennies on the dollar of the actual costs to mitigate the environmental harms resulting from the dam operations. The pollution behind and flowing over the dam poses the most serious threat to the bay as climate-driven increases in rainfall, flooding, and extreme storms send tons of pollution into the bay.

Third, we’ve allowed states to draft plans that have no reasonable assurances of dedicated financing to implement the plans and take us across the finish line in 2025. In the latest Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) for the Conowingo Dam, even the EPA is asking “where’s the money,” and nobody can answer this question. These plans for pollution reduction are absolutely critical to achieving the goals and timelines of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, and yet they seem to be premised on a magical appearance of billions of dollars. So what do we do now?

We have made a lot of progress towards achieving clean water in our Chesapeake communities, but every step forward is matched or exceeded by increased pollution from development, corporations taking the easy or cheaper way out, and state environmental programs having both their authority and their budgets stripped so that enforcement of our laws is merely an aspiration and not a reality. With the 2025 clean up plan deadline looming and the 50th anniversary of the most important law for protecting our waterways — the Clean Water Act — around the corner in 2022, perhaps it is time to reassess our priorities and our implementation. If we lift up community voices and provide them at least an equal if not greater influence and control of local water pollution regulation than that of the regulated/polluting community, we could see a new future. One where healthy communities, vibrant local economies, and sustainable water-dependent resources such as crabs, oysters, mussels and fish, are prioritized above short term shareholder profits and political influence. 

As Waterkeepers, we know that by focusing on the needs of our local communities — including their need for clean water — we can have effective, fair and just solutions that when taken together across the watershed will lead to a healthy and restored Chesapeake Bay.