11/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Feds to Release Plan to Clean Up Chesapeake Bay

Today, officials from the EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture will be releasing reports with a series of recommendations to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The reports are called for under an Executive Order, signed by the president in May, that recognized the Chesapeake Bay as a national treasure and called for federal leadership in protecting our nation's largest estuary.

Pollution in the Bay comes from a variety of sources. Runoff from lawns and parking lots, agricultural crop production and large-scale animal feedlots, and sewage all add dangerous levels of nutrient and pathogen pollution to our waters. These anticipated Executive Order reports will include recommendations that touch on all of the sources of Bay pollution.  NRDC has been particularly focused on recommendations to improve agricultural practices and reduce urban and stormwater runoff. 

When these recommendations come out later today, we'll especially be looking for a few big things: 

  • With 22 percent of the watershed in agricultural production, improved agricultural crop practices have a tremendous impact on the health of streams throughout the Bay.  There are a number of steps that farmers can take to reduce the fertilizer runoff that feed algal blooms that rob streams and the Bay of oxygen that fish and shellfish need to survive.  There is also funding available to assist farmers to take those steps.  Some farms have taken advantage of this opportunity to reduce fertilizer use or put in stream buffers, but those who haven't continue to foul downstream water resources.  The federal plan needs to put effective controls on the fertilizer that contaminates the Bay and its tributaries.
  • Animal waste is also filled with bacteria and other pathogens can run off into streams and rivers if not treated properly. In 2008, the EPA finalized a rule that requires all large, animal factory farms (typically those with 1,000 animals or more) to include a manure management plan as part of their Clean Water Act permit applications. However, due to strong opposition from corporate agricultural interests, the rule continues to exempt many large factory farms. Data supplied in March to NRDC by U.S. EPA confirms that large feedlots in Maryland and Virginia may not be obtaining Clean Water Act permits under the new EPA rule -- indicating they have not addressed their contribution to manure pollution that contaminates the Bay.  Although the compliance deadline had passed, not a single large operator had obtained a permit in Virginia, and only 14% of Maryland's had permits. Expanded definition and scope of pollution controls for factory farms are critical to the Bay's long-term health.  
  • Similarly, as the fastest growing source of water pollution in the watershed, policies to curb urban stormwater runoff -- such as green roofs, rain gardens, permeable pavement and other great solutions highlighted in NRDC's Rooftops to Rivers report -- are also sorely needed.  Environmental site design approaches are now in use in many communities throughout the Bay watershed.  These approaches are visually appealing, very effective at reducing pollution into the Bay and the streams that feed into it, and usually more cost-effective than other approaches as well.  These approaches must be expanded to protect all the rivers and streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.

The recommendations for the Bay restoration reports will outline critical steps needed to control pollution in the streams, rivers, and water that millions of people depend on. These reports, coupled with strong legislation announced by Senator Cardin, the Chesapeake Bay Ecosystem Restoration Act, outline a bold new approach to cleaning up our nation's largest estuary.  They move beyond a series of previously ineffective efforts to control all the major sources of water pollution to achieve real results in restoring the health of the Bay.  They also create new partnerships that encourage expanded use of proven, cost-efficient practices and policies to reduce pollution and restore fisheries.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed spans portions of six states and more than 60,000 square miles.  The only way to clean up the Bay is to get all of those states and the pollution sources in them to work at home to clean up the streams that supply drinking water, recreational opportunities, and economic heft to communities large and small throughout the watershed.  Federal leadership is critical to making this happen, so we are delighted to see that the Obama Administration is choosing clean water as one of its earliest priorities. 

This post originally appeared on NRDC"s Switchboard blog.