Published October 13, 2007

This Week's Take:

Three tough steps to restore the Chesapeake

No matter how one scores it, the Chesapeake Bay is still in trouble. We’ve done the easy things. Now, if we want to restore the bay and save our natural heritage, we must do the most difficult tasks.

After years of being involved in bay politics and restoration, I’ve concluded that three things must occur if we are to stem the flow of nutrients and sediment, which damage our rivers and make huge swaths of the bay unsuitable for fish and crabs:

1. We must control population growth and related sprawl development.

2. We must preserve forest land and plant new forests to buffer waterways.

3. We must require farmers to control runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

These essential tasks demand that we change the way we do business as population in the Chesapeake’s watershed continues to grow — and sprawl.

The population more than doubled from 8.1 million in 1950 to 16.9 million now. There are 3.6 million more people since the Chesapeake Bay Program began in 1983. Demographers expect 3 million more by 2030.

We also consume more land per capita. The average household size decreased during the last 30 years, but average lot size increased 60 percent. And we harden more land. From 1990 to 2000, the population grew by 8 percent, while impervious surfaces — paving and roofs — grew by 41 percent. At this rate, by 2010 an area more than twice the size of Shenandoah National Park will no longer soak up rain, nutrients and sediment.

Policies to channel growth into existing towns and cities aren’t working. Instead of growing where schools, transportation and utilities exist, we are growing into forest and fields. In Maryland, where “Smart Growth” is the favored approach, three-quarters of the land on which new homes were built from 1998 to 2005 was outside the areas designated for growth.

This sprawl and spread of impervious surfaces is bad for our rivers and the bay.

Stormwater runoff flushes pollutants to streams and changes their natural flow. It is the only source of water pollution still increasing.

Strong state land use controls can eliminate sprawl and stringent stormwater management requirements with impervious surface limits can reduce runoff from new development. However, the runoff from existing urban areas will remain and we need significant funding to clean it up. A fee on existing and new impervious surfaces is the most logical source.

Controlling development will help achieve another vital goal — preserving forest land.

Forests absorb more nutrients and hold sediment better than any other land use. Losing forests substantially increases the amount of pollutants reaching the bay. Yet a 2006 report found that from 1982 to 1997, development destroyed 140 acres of forest a day in the watershed, a total of 750,000 acres. This trend is predicted to accelerate, producing catastrophic results for our rivers and the bay.

Our legislatures must prioritize land preservation programs that protect forests and establish a no net loss goal for our remaining forest lands.

We need to add forests, too. The Chesapeake Bay Agreement called for 10,000 miles of riparian forest buffers by 2010. We’ve planted only a little more than half, and experts say that goal is too modest with at least 30,000 more miles needed to meet restoration goals.

Forested buffers could substantially control pollution from agriculture, the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Chesapeake, contributing 42 percent of the nitrogen, 45 percent of the phosphorus, and 62 percent of the sediment. Buffers, and nutrient management, cover crops, manure management and changes in feed are the most cost effective of all pollution controls.

To reduce nutrients and sediment enough to restore rivers and the bay, the farm acreage under effective pollution management with these cost-effective measures must exceed 90 percent. Yet, after two decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to fund voluntary ag programs, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that proper conservation practices are used on no more than 40 percent of the bay watershed’s farmland, and agriculture has achieved less than half its pollution reduction goals.

It is clear agriculture will not put in place the needed pollution controls unless we mandate implementation of cost-effective best management practices. Yes, more money for agricultural grants is needed. But voluntary efforts have not worked to clean up wastewater treatment plants, industrial smokestacks, automobiles or any other pollution source. It should be clear by now that without mandatory requirements for agricultural land the bay’s water quality cannot improve.

Unless we are prepared to accept a continuously declining Chesapeake Bay and the loss of our natural heritage, these difficult measures must be adopted — and soon.
Gerald W. Winegrad lives in the Oyster Harbor community near Annapolis. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and served in the Maryland General Assembly for 16 years.

This column was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

(Revised Oct 2007)