Restoring the Chesapeake: bottom-up approach is winning pollution battle
Setting out to prove that both a clean environment and a growing economy can coexist, Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Program is also reinventing the way the state conducts its environmental business.
“People at all levels of government see this as the opportunity to improve the way environmental decisions and policy are made and implemented,” says Maryland Governor Parris Glendening. “The tributary strategies process is a perfect vehicle to significantly alter the relationship between state and local governments.”
As the largest of the nation’s 850 estuaries, the Chesapeake Bay features a drainage basin of 64,000 square miles. It is home to more than 290 species of fish and some 2,700 plant species, whose existence have been threatened by declining water quality.
Settled nearly three centuries ago, the bay has begun to reflect the cumulative impact of how the land has been used. The 13 million people now living in its watershed are experiencing the overharvesting of the bay’s resources; the loss of forests, wetlands and farmlands; and declining water quality.
By 1992, about 40 percent of the land was no longer in its natural state; the loss of wetlands occurred at the rate of about eight acres a day. American shad, which spawn in the bay’s tributaries, the bay’s oyster population and the blue crab had suffered huge population declines over the past century due to overharvesting, blockage of mitigation routes by dams, habitat degradation and disease.
Nutrients — specifically phosphorus and nitrogen — contribute to algae blooms, which block sunlight, leading to the loss of underwater grasses. In turn, this loss contributes to the decreasing numbers of crabs and fish by robbing their habitats of oxygen.
The bay’s airshed, approximately five-and-a-half-times larger than its watershed, also dumps pollution into the water from hundreds of miles away.
Spurred in the 1970s by the U.S. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), scientists began an extensive seven-year study of the bay and its tributaries to determine the reasons for the heightened nutrient levels.
Three major problems were identified: excess nutrients from wastewater, agricultural land and developed land; sediment runoff from farms, construction sites and other lands; and possibly elevated levels of toxic chemicals.
In 1983, the Chesapeake Bay Program was conceived to direct and coordinate the restoration of the bay. The Chesapeake Bay Agreement, signed four years later, committed the state to improving water quality and habitats for living resources by reducing phosphorus and nitrogen entering the bay 49, percent by the year 2000.
By 1992, the direction of the program had changed, and amendments to the agreement focused on tributary strategies, spotlighting the cleanup on the rivers, streams and runs that provide the bay with vital fresh water, rather than the main stem of the Chesapeake.
The results of the program so far have been encouraging. “The State of the Chesapeake Bay: 1995,” a report produced by the Chesapeake Bay and Watershed Management Administration of the Maryland Department of the Environment, stated that by 1992, submerged aquatic vegetation, a critical habitat for fish, crabs, waterfowl and their food, had increased 75 percent over levels in 1978 in response to improving water quality. Additionally, due to improved reproduction and better control of the harvest, striped bass — or rockfish — are making a recovery.
And, controls on the harvest as well as provisions of fish passages at numerous blockage points have led to modest increases in the numbers of fish returning to spawn.
Cecily Majerus, the Governor’s Special Assistant for Environment In-House, attributes the ongoing success of the 12-year-old program to the marriage of federal, state, county and municipal levels of government with the State of Maryland, the commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia; the District of Columbia; the Chesapeake Bay Commission; the EPA; and participating advisory groups.
Glendening says the federal agency partners in the tributary strategies program contribute by providing technical assistance. Federal facilities, such as Patuxent Naval Air Station, are active partners in the development and implementation of the strategies.
FINANCING THE CLEANUP
According to Glendening, “the toughest aspect of the whole program is the funding. Paying for the infrastructure and techniques that will get us to our year 2000 goal is a challenge.”
Formed by then-governor William Schaefer in June 1994, a blue ribbon panel was charged with finding ways to help solve the funding shortfalls.
Made up of public, government and private sector representatives, the panel was created in response to citizen and local government concerns about costs expressed during public tributary strategy meetings.
The result of the panel was “a menu of ideas, some very new and innovative, that provide ways to bridge the gap between what we want to do and what we can afford to do,” says Glendening.
Current efforts in the cleanup campaign cost more than $200 million each year — funds that come from federal, state, local and private sources.
In order to implement the ongoing statewidetributary strategies, an estimated $60 million more per year is necessary,
Chaired by Harford County, Md., Executive Eileen Rehrmann, the panel created a finance menu, allowing for the citizens, local governments, businesses and others to choose the funding options to accommodate diverse situations and needs.
“It is always a challenge to stretch limited resources,” she says. “Our role was to rethink and go outside of the normal way of doing business to stretch and reallocate dollars.”
The panel report, “Financing Alternatives For Maryland’s Tributary Strategies,” identified financing vehicles and options in all areas of finance, including public-private partnerships, unconventional loans, user fees, appropriate surcharges, securitization and other mechanisms not always considered for funding environmental projects.
The range of activities that could fall under the jurisdiction of a watershed district could
Like small water systems everywhere in the 1980s, those in Northeast Missouri were beginning to feel the burden of increasing regulations, decreasing raw water supplies and rising costs. State and local officials agreed the time had come to find a long-term solution to this increasingly urgent problem.
The solution came in 1983 with the organization of the Clarence Cannon Wholesale Water Commission, Although the concept of a regional water supplier was not new elsewhere, it was a novel approach in Missouri.
As a result, many obstacles had to be overcome before the commission could become a reality. To begin with, there were no legal provisions for the organization of such a group in Missouri, so statutes had to be changed to allow for the formation of a wholesale water utility. Beginning in 1982, a small group of water purveyors set out to make these changes, identify a water source, secure financing and bring the concept to fruition.
Working with state and local officials, a consensus was reached that the most reliable long-term raw water source available in Northeast Missouri was Mark Twain Lake, an Army Corps of Engineers project still under construction at the time. By 1988, the commission had successfully negotiated a contract with the corps and the state, allowing the withdrawal of up to 16 mgd. The funding necessary to design and build a treatment plant was approved in 1989, and construction began in 1991. The Cecil V. Fretwell Water Treatment Plant, Stoutsville, Mo., — named for one of the leaders of the commission — went on-line in June 1992.
With plenty of room for expansion, the state-of-the-art plant is now producing 4.5 mgd of potable water. Day-to-day operations and maintenance of the facility is handled by JMM Operational Services, Denver. Rates and other issues are handled by a governing board of directors made up of one representative from each of the 13 towns or rural water districts that purchase water from the commission.
The benefits of a regional water supplier have quickly become evident. The quality of finished water has improved significantly over that produced by the smaller plants that used to serve the area. Because of its size, the new plant is required to meet quality standards — such as those for trihalomethanes and various chemical contaminants — from which the smaller plants were exempt.
Other benefits include economies of scale realized through lower O&M costs; the security of a stable, long-term source of potable water that will foster economic development throughout the area; and the ability of the commission’s members to re-allocate capital resources. By uniting, these communities have been able to meet the growing demands of their service areas, control costs and provide a higher quality of service. include any combination of the formation of stormwater utilities; the sale of municipal utility assets to private investors as tax shelters; full-cost pricing of service fees; the formation of local agricultural cooperatives to assist farmers in accessing more funding at lower costs; expansion of the tax deduction for certain environmental farm equipment; forest mitigation banking; the sale of mini-bonds to finance tree planting and stream restoration; establishment of a state-wide environmental trust fund; and expansion of the bay license plate program.
The panel created a menu of more than 35 funding ideas in four categories: point source (which essentially refers to biological nutrient reduction — BNR — at waste treatment plants with flows of at least 500,000 gpd), nonpoint source (agricultural lands with an emphasis on conservation and nutrient management plans and improved means for containing animal waste and other sources of nitrogen and phosphorus), developed land (runoff from streets, parking lots and other developed areas, focusing on stormwater management efforts like retention ponds), and resource protection (which includes a range of practices designed to protect natural areas such as forests and wetland).
Current plans call for installation of BNR technology in the 49 sewage treatment plants that account for 95 percent of the total effluent that flows into the Chesapeake. Without this breakthrough process, Glendening says, Maryland could not successfully reach its 40 percent nitrogen goal.
Under this program, state funding covers 50 percent of the cost for equipping existing facilities with BNR, including feasibility studies, design and construction. The other 50 percent, as well as costs associated with any facility expansion for future growth, is provided by facility owners.
Other point source funding options were developed including:
* extending the State Revolving Loan Fund to include a broader borrowing base by facilitating private investment in wastewater treatment plant upgrades; and
* extending the maturity of state revenue bonds to coincide with the service life of financed facilities to reduce annual debt service payments.
The primary nonpoint source focus falls on agricultural lands, which represent the most extensive land use, other than forest, in Mary, land and the Chesapeake Bay water, shed. The area also represents the greatest shortfall in funding.
Because these efforts are generally voluntary, lack of technical assistance or incentives can be a problem.
The panel emphasized conservation and nutrient management plans and improved means for containing animal waste and other sources of nitrogen and phosphorus.
Among the list of funding mechanisms in agricultural lands are increasing cost-share and incentives, tax credits and surcharges to spread costs to all who benefit; expanding tax deductions for conservation tillage and animal waste handling equipment as well as other environmental equipment; and instituting an environmental check-off for all agricultural products.
The resource protection category includes a range. of practices de, signed to protect natural areas such as forests and wastelands.
These ecosystems generate fewer nutrients than any other land use, and some — such as forests and wetlands — actually function as nutrient filters.
Shore erosion controls, such as stone revetment or the planting of marsh grasses, help prevent the loss of tons of sediment and the nutrients that are carried along with it into the bay.
Financing ideas include the statewide purchase/transferable development right bank (PDR/-TDR), which would administer funds provided through other sources; the establishment of forest mitigation banking systems at state and county levels, which would pass on the cost of planting trees to the development community and new homeowners; and the creation of adopt-a-crab/adopt-a-bay creature kits; the latter is expected to raise between $50,000-$200,000 — assuming the cost to produce and market the materials is $10 per kit.
According to Majerus, it was apparent from the earliest planning stages that teamwork was essential for meeting the reduction goal.
“Everyone involved recognizes the importance of the Chesapeake Bay to our state’s economy and to our lives,” Glendening says. “And, more importantly, they also recognize their responsibility to the bay.”
Dividing the statewide project into 10 tributary basins made it easier to target diverse needs and agendas — from agriculture to business/industry to homeowners and citizens — and develop manageable strategies and options for cleaning the bay.
“It’s taken us a little time to figure out how to work well with each other,” Majerus says.
Departing from the traditional mandates and regulations evident in other large-scale projects, local level officials joined with the governor and asked every county and municipality to appoint a contact person who would be involved in helping to spread the word to other colleagues. Field work has helped cement the commitment among the state and local government, agencies and citizens. This allowed for an exchange of expertise among citizens, environmental representatives, farmers, academic institutions, government staff and others representing the diverse land uses in each watershed.
“The solutions and ideas that the counties had were extremely helpful,” Majerus says. “While it took longer to coordinate, the counties had a better understanding of what was going on at the local level than the state did. It saved us a lot of trouble later.”
An unexpected bonus — increased support and trust from the public — means “more people are working together to find a solution. What we did helps them realize that the so-called bureaucrats really care and understand about the issues and what they’re faced with,” Majerus explains.
Strategic draft clans are another step in that direction. Since 1993, the tributary basins have worked, reviewed and discussed options during public hearings held across the state. The teams, which will be appointed by Glendening, will monitor implementation of the draft plans, facilitate the cleanup, get citizens involved and report progress back to the local governments and the governor.
Majerus says this “bottom up” structure helps to discourage the state agencies from developing and presenting fully formed strategies to the local governments, citizens, farmers and businesses, who are pleased with the program.
And, Glendening says accountability is a great motivator for residents. “By publicly establishing this [nutrient reduction] goal, which all 23 counties of the state and the city of Baltimore agreed to reach when they signed the Maryland Chesapeake Bay Partnership Agreement in 1992, we have set a target that the citizens of Maryland can hold us to,” he says.
“We are demonstrating to both local government and state agencies that new working relationships can be successfully implemented,” Glendening says. Watershed residents participated directly in helping to decide goals and actions. As Majerus Puts it, “You have to explain specifically that if you want a certain level of fish, you have to upgrade your water. That means your rates may go up — are you willing to do that?”
Operating from a developed menu of nutrient-reducing options, each tributary basin has the flexibility to mix and match the elements to meet specific needs and diverse land uses. Some of these options include:
* Nutrient Management. Farmers will be asked to implement nutrient conservation methods and use animal waste management systems. Homeowners can participate by using minimal amounts of fertilizer on their lawns.
* Septic Pumping. The recommendation is that septic tanks be pumped every three years to properly function and help reduce groundwater pollution.
* Forest Buffers. Planting forest buffers along streambanks prevents nutrient runoff from entering area waterways.
* Upgrading Sewage Treatment Plants. Removing nitrogen and phosphorus minimizes their impact on area waterways.
* Installing Marine Pumpouts. Marinas with more than 50 slips must install pumpout facilities for boaters to discharge their sewage.
EVALUATING THE PROCESS
The Chesapeake Bay Citizen Monitoring Program (CBCMP), begun in 1985, was designed to involve local citizens with a stake in the restoration effort and to compile a valuable long-term database of water quality indicators in the tributaries to the bay.
More than 150 individuals collect weekly water samples in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. They routinely participate in an atmospheric deposition study, plant trees in a forested buffer habitat restoration project and report observations on backyard wildlife.
Since its inception, the program has developed standard protocols and produced a monitoring manual for use by volunteers.
To date, the monitors have collected quality-assured, long-term baseline data on several watersheds in the bay basin — the volunteers have collected data at 110 stations (a core group has been sampling for eight years).
“Without this scientific backup and the development of broad public understanding of that science,” Glendening says, “we could not have been successful.
Once formed and actively in place, the tributary teams will rejoin a year ‘later to reevaluate the progress, address areas of concern and, if necessary, go back to the drawing board on certain issues.
“We hope it will be a foundation that once established, can be added on to or spun off from,” Majerus says. While it has taken more than three years, the process continues, according to Glendening. “The real heroes of this project are the state and local government employees who practically reinvented the way Maryland did business environmentally.”
Others are keeping tabs on the restoration’s progress and ongoing success. National estuaries have already begun to model Maryland’s new environmental business strategy, and coastal zone states have been studying the financial atternatives created by the blue ribbon panel.
“A full-scale statewide application of watershed management has never been tried in the United States,” Glendening says. “The scope and depth of the tributary strategies speak for the hard work involved, as does the extent of the public involvement that was generated. Our strategies are already being used as a model by our partners in Virginia.”
Regardless of the bay program’s current status, the restoration effort, the public process, the local/state relations and the new way of doing business on local levels were faced with doubts and criticism during the early stages of the project. “It was new,” Glendening explains. “Critics came from both sides of the issue. Some felt that the strategies would not be enough or there would not be enough regulation. Others were afraid that they would not have the opportunity to participate and it would be just another set of mandates with too much regulation and not enough participation.”
The key to success, he says, has been the openness of the process. “People have been able to see where the program has changed as result of their input. Our best arguments to convince doubters have been the results of the process.”
“There are two messages,” Glendening says to those who are keeping tabs on the bay cleanup program. “The first is that jobs and the environment can coexist. We do not have to sacrifice one for the other.
“The other message is that you can do it. It isn’t easy, and it takes hard, smart work, but with motivation it can be done.”
The end result, Glendening says, is a more effective and cost-efficient program that works for everyone.