When Capt. John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he reported that it was a land “overgrown with trees” and that the region’s “clear rivers and brooks” fed a “faire Bay.”

The rivers had more sturgeon “than could be devoured by dog or man” and there were so many other fish that “we attempted to catch them with a frying pan: but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.”

While Smith was prone to exaggeration, there’s little doubt that the Bay he described was vastly different from today — and one that will never be seen again. The waters of today’s Bay are often murky and, in the summer, oxygen-starved “dead zones” often cover vast stretches of the bottom.

Roughly 18 million people live in the Bay watershed, a landscape that consists of parts of six states and the District of Columbia — and includes about 1,800 local governments.

While the near-pristine Bay seen by John Smith may never return, state and federal officials have been working for years to help reduce pollution that contributes to algae blooms and low oxygen levels.

A regulatory program implemented at the end of 2010 — the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL — was established after years of meetings between federal and state agency officials. Its intent is to have all actions needed to clean the Bay — from wastewater treatment plant upgrades to new runoff controls on farms — in place by 2025.

Federal and state officials have long understood that this goal may prove elusive unless they more successfully engage all types of local leaders — local governments, conservation districts, watershed groups, river basin commissions, planning districts and others.

To help accomplish that, states next year will need to write, and submit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, updated cleanup plans to reduce the amount of the pollutants contributing the Bay’s water quality woes: two forms of nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — and sediment.

Those plans, the EPA said in a recent memorandum to states, need to be developed with “effective local engagement,” and they also need to establish local pollution reduction “planning goals.”

Exactly what those local goals are, how they will be measured and what “local” means may vary from state to state. But EPA officials are clear about one thing: The goals are intended to be informational to help promote local engagement, not enforceable.

“We don’t have the authority to take a federal action against a local government or another local partner, nor do we have the desire to do so,” said Lucinda Power, of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

Local participation has always been critical to the Bay cleanup, but engagement hasn’t always been easy. Shortly after the TMDL was rolled out in December 2010, each state in the watershed created written cleanup strategies — called watershed implementation plans or WIPs — that were intended to establish local nutrient and sediment reduction targets.

That effort was ultimately walked back, as computer model projections failed to reflect what was actually happening on the ground in many areas at a very local scale. Now, though, officials are confident that models have been dramatically and successfully revised. They now incorporate land use data based on aerial photography with 1-meter resolution, which will produce much more accurate estimates of local actions.

“There were a lot of concerns that the land use information was incorrect, and an overall distrust of the modeling tools,” Power said. “Since 2012, we’ve really been working hard to address those concerns.”

Still, when the EPA floated the idea for “local area targets” a year ago, it produced a firestorm of criticism from many local and state officials who feared it would lead to new, enforceable requirements on local governments. The National Association of Counties even approved a resolution opposing any effort by the EPA to set local numeric targets in the Bay watershed.

“There was this perception that because of the word, ‘target,’ the EPA was going to tell local governments — or have the states tell local governments — that you must achieve this local allocation, which was not the intent,” said Lisa Schaefer, director of government relations for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

During much of last year, Schaefer co-chaired a task force aimed at trying to work with state, local and federal officials to resolve the issue.

Their resulting recommendations, which were incorporated into the EPA’s memorandum to states earlier this year, call for “local planning goals” but leave it up to the states to determine the appropriate scale for setting goals, as long as the goals are below the major river basin scale within each state.

“Local” could mean a lot of different things, according to the EPA’s memorandum:

  • the boundaries of a local jurisdiction or a collection of political subdivisions;
  • specific federal facilities;
  • specific state facilities;
  • soil and water conservation district boundaries;
  • boundaries of regional entities such as river basin commissions, utility districts or planning district commissions;
  • subwatersheds of Chesapeake Bay tributaries;
  • targeted areas with high nitrogen, phosphorus or sediment yields (loadings); and
  • other definable geographic regions or combinations of the above

Pollution-reduction goals set for those areas have to result in measurable outcomes, but it’s up to states to determine how they should be measured. Options, according to the memorandum, could include:

  • the percentage of best management practice implementation on a given land use;
  • quantifiable implementation goals for particular best management practices;
  • numeric nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reduction goals measured in pounds;
  • the percent reduction in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment over a certain time frame;
  • a certain pace of implementation of pollution control practices over a certain time frame;
  • measurable flow reductions of stormwater runoff in certain tributaries; and
  • adoption of ordinances with provisions to control runoff that include implementation, oversight and enforcement requirements.

Ruby Brabo, a supervisor from King George County in Virginia, who had raised concerns about the EPA’s initial wording, said she was “very, very pleased with what has come out of the task force.”

“At the end of the day, a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach will not fit in the watershed. We are all so very different,” Brabo said.

Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said having some type of measurable local goal is critical for meaningful participation at local levels. “How can you lose weight if you don’t know how much weight you have to lose?” she asked.

The goals will help target areas with the greatest pollution issues, McGee said, and — once those areas are highlighted — the information can be used to help provide additional financial resources to address those issues.

State officials say they want to get more input from local governments, and others, before they determine what “local” will mean in their states and how reductions might be measured.

Officials in the various states say they have either begun, or will soon begin, initial meetings with local governments and organizations. But, they stress, the next generation of cleanup plans should emphasize activities that benefit both local waterways and the Bay.

“We are working on things that are solving both local environmental problems and also addressing local economic development issues — local infrastructure issues into which we can build an environmental component,” said Jim George of the Maryland Department of Environment.

It may not restore the Bay as John Smith saw it, but it should help bring the region closer to having “clear rivers and brooks” and a “faire Bay.”

Help for watershed implementation plans

The EPA memorandum to the states can be found at the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load website under “Interim Phase III WIP Expectations.”  For information about the development of state Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plans, contact:

  • Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control: Marcia Fox at marcia.Fox@state.de.us
  • District of Columbia Department of Energy & Environment: George Onyullo at george.onyullo@dc.gov
  • Maryland Department of Environment: Kathy Stecker at kathy.stecker@maryland.gov
  • New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: Sara Latessa at sara.latessa@dec.ny.gov
  • Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection: Veronica Kasi at vbkasi@pa.gov
  • Virginia Department of Environmental Quality: Joan Salvati at joan.salvati@deq.virginia.gov
  • West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection: Alana Hartman at alana.c.hartman@wv.gov