A Tipping Point for Good

The following first appeared in Truth Out.

The Brock Environmental Center, located at Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach, VA

We've known for a long time that the Earth is warming, but it could be worse than we thought. A recent report from the World Meteorological Organization concludes that carbon pollution and the buildup of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are increasing much faster than projected. And this pollution is putting communities across the country at a higher risk of droughts, intense storms, floods, and other problems brought on by global warming.

In the Chesapeake Bay region, we're on the front lines of climate change. Streets in Norfolk, Virginia, home to nearly a quarter of a million people and the world's largest naval base, routinely flood during heavy rains. Wind-and wave-pushed storm surges make the flooding even worse. And scientists estimate sea levels in Norfolk will rise another foot and a half within the next 50 years.

Virginians are scrambling to prepare the region for these changes. The governor convened a special commission to recommend action; the military is looking hard at the future of its Hampton Roads bases—and local governments, businesses, and citizens are bracing for the worst.

But at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, we're not blinking; we're creating a tipping point for the good by helping to develop solutions that could be a model for coastal regions across the country and the world where climate change threatens our livelihood and our future.

In November 2014, we'll open the doors to the new Brock Environmental Center—a 10,000 square-foot environmental education and community center in Virginia Beach, VA. By adapting existing technologies and utilizing old-school building techniques, we're building an energy efficient and environmentally smart building that will reduce damaging carbon pollution and adapt to rising sea-levels and a changing climate.

The solution starts with energy independence. To achieve that goal, the Brock Environmental Center is designed to use 80 percent less energy than typical buildings. The building will generate clean renewable energy from two wind turbines and rooftop solar.

Our designers curved the building and positioned it to maximize natural sunlight and maritime winds. The building features a "dog trot," an open deck in the middle of the building that promotes natural ventilation by allowing cool air to flow in and heat to flow out. It's an old trick used by Colonial builders in the South before the era of air conditioning. The highly insulated building significantly reduces the need for heating and air conditioning.

Together with the center's ultra-tight walls, windows, and doors, extra insulation and energy efficiencies, the Brock Center will truly be energy independent.

The building will also be water independent. Rainwater will be harvested from the roof and treated, allowing us to use our own water for drinking, sinks and showers, and other needs. Any excess rain water will flow into nearby rain gardens. "Gray water" will be used for native grasses, flowers, and shrubs. Even the center's bathrooms will use waterless toilets that compost waste in waterproof bins until the harmless compost can be spread on the grounds.

Anticipating more regional flooding, we have raised the building on pylons about 13 feet above current sea level and above any expected flooding in the coming decades.

Most importantly, we deliberately left the landscaping around the building as natural as possible in marsh, sand, shrubs, and trees. There are no paved parking lots; staff and visitors will park on nearby streets and walk to the center on a natural path through the woods. Any code-required handicap and emergency accesses will use permeable pavers that let water soak in rather than run off.

All of this natural, "soft" landscaping makes the Brock Center serve as a giant sponge, absorbing rainfall and storm surges and allowing flood waters to spread and recede naturally without harm to the center or nearby neighborhoods.

Researchers, students, designers, and architects will come to the Brock Environmental Center to learn about the Chesapeake Bay and environmentally smart building techniques to reduce carbon pollution and prepare our communities for climate change. As people take these techniques back to their communities around the country and the world, it will help create a tipping point for the good.

—Will Baker, CBF President

Watch this video, discussing the genesis of the Brock Environmental Center project and how it is a model for combating climate change and future coastal buildings. 

Getting "Run Off" the Beach Because of Runoff

The following first appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the Daily Press earlier this week.

Beachsign, blog1
Beach goers in Virginia Beach "run off" the beach from dirty water. Photo by Andrea Moran/CBF Staff

The lower Chesapeake Bay has indeed been fortunate in dodging oxygen-starved dead zones this summer. However, Hampton Roads has seen its share of dirty, unsafe water in recent months.

Just last week, the Virginia Department of Health condemned oyster beds in parts of the James River off Newport News, banning all shellfish harvests there for the rest of September because the water "has been subjected to sewage spills likely containing pathogenic bacteria and viruses, and because the area is not a safe area from which to take shellfish for direct marketing."

Earlier this summer, health officials closed beaches along Ocean View in Norfolk, James River beaches in Newport News, Yorktown Beach, Gloucester Point Beach and the Virginia Beach oceanfront because of high bacteria levels in the water. As of last month, authorities had issued 31 swimming advisories for 16 different beaches, nearly all of them in Hampton Roads, spanning 74 days.

While unsafe beaches can be caused by natural factors such as bird droppings, more often it is the result of pollution running off streets, parking lots and lawns. Even a gentle rain washes pet waste, sewage, litter, grease, oil, fertilizer and other toxic substances off the land and into storm drains leading to nearby waterways. This pollution not only threatens public health, it hurts our local water-based businesses and industries.

Most importantly, runoff pollution is preventable. All of us can do our part to reduce runoff from our homes, yards, schools, businesses, and neighborhoods.

To learn more, go to cbf.org/runoff. Safe beaches are ours for the choosing. Choose clean water.

—Christy Everett, CBF Hampton Roads Director

Unhealthy Waters

The following first appeared in the Capital Gazette.

Photo by Krista Schlyer/iLCP

Thankfully, The Capital reported sewer spills in Cox Creek and Furnace Creek after last week's deluge. That coverage allowed swimmers and boaters to avoid the water.

But many other county creeks and rivers were fouled last week by something equally unpleasant as sewage: polluted runoff from the storm. The danger to human health in those waters was serious just as it was in Cox and Furnace Creeks. Unfortunately, many bathers had no idea.

It did not help that Anne Arundel County Health Department chose not to test waters at many public swimming areas after the storm. That could have helped spur newspaper coverage, and thus alert bathers and others.
But we know bacteria levels at many private swimming areas were alarmingly high after the storm. Volunteers with Operation Clearwater conducted their customary weekly water monitoring at those private recreation areas. Tests done on those samples at the laboratory of the Biology Department of Anne Arundel County Community College showed bacteria levels as much as 95 times government safety levels. At those levels, a swimmer might just as well have been wading into sewage.

Here's a partial list of private swimming and recreation areas in the Severn, Magothy, South, and Rhode/West rivers that had unhealthy bacteria levels after the storm. Any reading above 104 is unhealthy. Carrollton Manor-Sunset Beach (17,420); Hendler Road (8,060); Cockey Creek (14,400), Forked Creek (13,250); Dividing Creek (10,944) Mill Creek (9,360); Beards Creek (41,472); South River Park (9,504); Edgewater Community Beach (5,472); Holly Hills (12,442); Cadle Creek Community Dock (12,384) Whitemarsh Community Dock and Beach (9,101); Parrish Creek (4,896); Riverclub Community Dock and Beach (5.990).

Again, the reason for the unhealthy water in these areas was not broken sewage lines or pumps as in Cox and Furnace Creeks. It was the runoff from our local streets, lawns, and other areas that carries with it pet waste, septic leakage, and other pollution. Animal and human waste carry bacteria that, at high levels, can cause stomach ailments or more serious health problems.

The county health department did issue on its website a general advisory to avoid contact with water for 48 hours after the storm—and after any significant storm—because of anticipated health risks from runoff.

It is important for the public to know the harm caused by polluted runoff, not only so they can avoid recreating in unhealthy waters, but so they know the reason they are paying the so-called "rain tax." It is precisely the problem of polluted runoff the fee is intended to address. The funds are being used to upgrade the long-neglected drainage systems throughout our communities, and to clean up local water. Knowing the source of the problem, residents also will be more motivated to pick up pet waste and address other causes close to home.

Long-term, the solution to dirty water is simple: reduce pollution. The path to that success is laid out in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. That's the regional plan now in place to implement all clean-up strategies by 2025 to make our water safe enough for swimming and fishing. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has called on all local governments to provide transparent means for residents to track progress toward this cleaner water.

In the meantime, let's at least make sure the public knows the extent of the problem, and how to avoid risks to its health. There's no sense pretending that after a storm our own creeks don't stink.

—Alison Prost, CBF's Maryland Executive Director

Toldeo's Toxic Water Emphasizes Need to Reduce Pollution

The following first appeared in the Bay Journal News.

An algal bloom at Mattawoman Creek. Photo by John Surrick/CBF Staff

Surviving a heart attack is a huge wake-up call that usually warrants a change of diet. Toledo, Ohio, just survived a heart attack.

The city's drinking water, drawn from Lake Erie, became toxic because of a huge algae bloom. Algae blooms are caused by too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the water. This one was the city's wake-up call and signals it's time for a change of lifestyle.

The algae that caused Toledo's heart attack is naturally present in most water bodies including all of the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, the Albemarle Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. Too much nitrogen and or phosphorous, which feed the algae, can cause these algae to grow to enormous sizes called "blooms" that give off toxic substances that harm humans, wildlife and the aquatic ecosystem. Algae blooms are also responsible for "dead zones," which are areas in water bodies so depleted of oxygen that nothing can live.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are major components in fertilizer, manure and sewage. Improper use of fertilizer and manure contaminates our streams when rainwater washes off agricultural fields, feedlots, lawns and golf courses. Failing septic systems and outdated wastewater treatment plants also contribute to the excessive nutrient loading of our streams.

Reducing nutrients in our streams and rivers is the cure; some call this a "pollution diet". We have a pollution diet under way right now in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — and it is working.  Nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the Chesapeake Bay have been cut in half since the mid 1980s despite the fact that the population in the Bay watershed increased 30 percent from 13.5 million in 1985 to 17 million in 2012. This is an incredible achievement! The "diet" is working.

Reducing nutrients in streams is not rocket science. We know how to do it. Each of the six states in the Bay watershed came up their own pollution diet to reduce nutrient loading into their streams and rivers. These six plans were approved by the Environmental Protection Agency several years ago and together form the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Lots of people are working together to implement the Blueprint. Farmers are fencing their cows out of the streams, planting riparian buffers, using fertilizers more responsibly and reducing soil erosion by using no-till methods and cover crops during the winter.

Local and state governments are investing in sewage treatment upgrades that remove nutrients from their discharges. People in cities and suburban areas are using less fertilizer on their lawns. Legislatures are passing laws encouraging nutrient management and have eliminated phosphorous in lawn fertilizers. Citizens are paying stormwater utility fees to help fund stormwater management projects.

There are deep-pocketed lobbyists from outside the Bay watershed that don't like the pollution diet for the Bay. The Fertilizer Institute, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Corn Growers Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Chicken Council, the National Association of Home Builders and other lobbying groups associated with activities that contribute to nutrient loading are suing the EPA over the plan to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Even more disturbing is the fact that the attorneys general in 21 states, most of them in the Mississippi watershed, signed "friend of the court" briefs on behalf of these deep-pocketed lobbyists. Meanwhile, Toledo can't use their water and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico remains the second largest in the world.

Clean water is a choice. The people of the Chesapeake Bay watershed have agreed on a plan to get there. Successful implementation and the Chesapeake's plan will result in safer and more abundant seafood, jobs and tourism. We will have a healthier world; something we can be proud of.

I lament that we have to waste time and money on a lawsuit because we want/need cleaner water.

What happened in Toledo is unfortunate and tragic. For a remedy, they need to look no farther than the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. It's a "pollution diet" that is working.

—Robert Whitescarver
Whitescarver is a recently retired USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservationist who spent more than 30 years working with farmers on conservation practices. He now has his own private consulting business where he helps landowners create an overall vision and plan for their land. He also works with CBF to help famers install more Best Managment Practices (BMPs) in the Shenandoah Valley. He is the recipient of a CBF Conservationist of the Year award.

Take a moment to sign your name in support of clean water to protect the Bay and its rivers and streams for our children and grandchildren!

Bay Jurisdictions Must Not Fall Behind on Cleanup Actions, Goals

April Sunrise
Photo by Lauren Elmore

It is a critical time politically, too. Maryland and Pennsylvania will elect governors, the District of Columbia will elect a new mayor, and Virginia's Gov. Terry McAuliffe is in his first year in office. Together, these elected officials must implement the programs and policies that either will, or will not, reach the 2017 goal of putting practices in place to reduce pollution by 60 percent to restore water quality in local rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay, with the balance due by 2025.

In 2010, these Bay jurisdictions and the EPA set pollution limits that would restore water, and each state developed its own plan to meet those limits. In addition, the states made two-year milestone commitments to take specific actions to ensure progress was being made to achieve the necessary pollution reductions.

Taken together, the pollution limits, milestones and state-specific long-term plans make up the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. This Blueprint provides a historic opportunity to achieve water quality goals on a scale that is unprecedented.

For the first time in the history of Bay restoration, we can measure, evaluate and hold states accountable for short-term commitments. The milestones enable the states and the EPA to identify shortcomings and take corrective action before the 2017 and 2025 deadlines. In signing the new Bay agreement, Gov. Martin O'Malley, chair of the Chesapeake Executive Committee said, "Instead of praying for better results 20 years from now, we are taking better action today in order to achieve better results tomorrow."

The good news is that the Clean Water Blueprint is working so far. But, there are danger signs ahead.

EPA data indicate that, overall, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia are on track to meet the 2017 pollution-reduction goals for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

This progress has been achieved primarily through pollution reduction from sewage treatment plants, which will not be sufficient to achieve long-term goals. This underscores the need to reduce pollution from agriculture and urban/suburban runoff, especially in Virginia and West Virginia.

Delaware is falling short of both its nitrogen and phosphorus goals; New York is missing the mark for nitrogen; and Pennsylvania for both nitrogen and sediment. All three must increase efforts to reduce pollution from agriculture and urban/suburban runoff. The District of Columbia is not on track to meet its sediment goal, and also needs to step up efforts to reduce urban/suburban polluted runoff.

Missing milestone goals or not being on track to meet the 2017 interim goal is worrisome. Either means that we will continue to be plagued by polluted water, human health hazards and fewer recreational opportunities — all at a great cost to society.

The states and EPA need to plan now for how they will ramp up implementation to address agricultural and urban polluted runoff, not kick the can down the road. And they need to be transparent about those plans.

Restoring local rivers and streams, and saving the Chesapeake Bay are important. A clean environment will provide benefits today and for future generations. Threats to human health will be reduced, jobs will be created, and recreational opportunities will be improved.

—William C. Baker, CBF President

Local Governments Set Pollution-Busting Examples

The following originally appeared in Bay Journal News Service yesterday.

Riparian Park plantingA community riparian park planting. Photo by CBF Staff. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2012 State of the Bay Report tells us the health of the Chesapeake Bay has improved 14 percent since 2008. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

Throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, we hear about local governments, businesses, and citizens rolling up their sleeves to reduce pollution from all sectors--agriculture, sewage treatment plants, and urban and suburban runoff. They are working to restore local rivers and streams. That is the goal of the federal/state Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint (formally known as the TMDL and State Watershed Implementation Plans). The Blueprint, if fully implemented with programs in place by 2025, will restore clean water throughout the Chesapeake's 64,000 square mile watershed.

Examples abound.

In south-central Pennsylvania, Warwick Township's citizens—farmers,  school children, businessmen, civic groups, and the township board of supervisors—pitched in to implement a comprehensive watershed management plan for Lititz Run.

Building on stream restoration efforts started in the early 1990s, Girl Scouts turned old barrels into rain barrels, and in turn homeowners used the devices to reduce stormwater flow. Every industrial park in the township modified its stormwater system to reduce runoff. The township preserved 20 farms and 1,318 farm acres from future development using "Transferable Development Rights." Eagle Scouts placed "No Dumping, Drains to the Stream" signs on all the storm drains in the township.

The Result: Lititz Run has been re-designated by the State as a cold-water fishery and now supports a healthy brook trout population.

Just a little south of Lititz, the Lancaster City government is making significant investments in green infrastructure. The green roofs, porous pavers in alleyways, rain barrels, and other innovative technologies put in place there will absorb rainwater instead of allowing it to run off carrying pollution to the Conestoga River. Not only will water quality be improved, but these actions will improve the quality of life for all residents.

In Maryland, Harford, Somerset, and Wicomico counties decided to better manage sprawl to reduce associated water and air pollution and preserve their rural character.

In the small town of Forest Heights, Md., Mayor Jacqueline E. Goodall wants local government to lead by example. Town stormwater drains into Oxon Run, which in turn flows to the polluted Potomac River. So the town recently installed new bio-retention ponds, a cistern, and three 250-gallon rain barrels at the town administration building. Previously, the town had installed a vegetated green roof on the building, as well as solar panels, and energy-efficient interior features. Forest Heights actively sought grants for the latest project, reducing the overall cost 90 percent. Now, the town is encouraging its 2,400 residents to do their part: limit car washing and pesticide spraying, install rain barrels, and take other measures.

And Talbot County, Md., has undertaken an innovative pilot program to use existing farm and street ditches to purify runoff. County-wide, this strategy could save tens of millions of dollars.

In Virginia this year, the Governor and legislature allocated $216 million in new funds for local water improvement efforts, the largest investment in clean water in years. This investment will pay for upgrading wastewater treatment plants, improving stormwater runoff controls, and reducing combined sewer overflows. These actions will help produce healthier streams and rivers across the Commonwealth, stimulate local economies, and help Virginia meet its 2017 Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.

Falls Church, Va., officials reduced the initial cost estimates for improving stormwater management by 60 percent through the use of "green infrastructure." And in Charlottesville, Va., city officials recognized the damage done by stormwater to the Rivanna River and passed a stormwater fee to aid in restoration.

We hope these actions and the many others like them inspire other local governments, businesses, and individuals to implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. It is the right thing to do, and it is the legacy we want to leave for our children and grandchildren.

We're more than halfway to our goal of reducing water pollution. Much work remains, but momentum is building. And each person, business, and locality that takes action increases our ability to finish the job in our lifetime.

—Kim Coble
Vice President, Environmental Protection and Restoration, Chesapeake Bay Foundation

A Wastewater All-Star, Part 3

The following is the third and final part in a series about recent upgrades to an Easton wastewater treatment plant, and how these improvements have helped support our clean water efforts. Read the first and second parts in the series.

Comparison--raw sewage, final effluent, dried biosolids
A raw sewage, final effluent, and dried biosolids comparison. Photo by John Page Williams/CBF Staff.
It was clear in 2009 that the Easton plant was going to set a great example of enhanced nutrient removal sewage treatment, but we had an opportunity to stop by in May of 2012 to see how it was faring at the end of its fifth year of operation. "We learn every day," said Doug Abbott with a smile. "Enhanced nutrient removal is new. There isn't a lot of history yet. The challenge is still putting everything together to keep the processes consistent in spite of varying load and weather.


"There are many moving parts," he continued. "Every plant has its own characteristics. Our strong monitoring system allows us to tweak it, like fine-tuning a complex machine that also has living creatures that we must keep happy [the bugs]. We have to balance everything, resist the temptation to make changes too quickly when an alarm goes off, and build the history. We can't make a cookbook.

"We are, however, beginning to develop a computer model of the plant to use for predictions and as a 'flight simulator' for training new operators. MDE and the MD Center for Environmental Training (MCET) are supporting that project. And we're exchanging information and visits with other plant operators in both Maryland and Pennsylvania . . . the support we have received from the Town Council and the management of Easton Utilities has been very important. Because EU provides a wide range of services to the community in addition to sewage treatment—electricity, natural gas, drinking water, cable television, and internet connections, it can support our operation in many ways, especially in electrical work and information technology."

Eleven years into the project, Easton Utilities and its town appear to have used their Bay Restoration (AKA "flush fee") Funds well, to benefit the Choptank River and the Chesapeake as well as themselves. Planning ahead, piecing together the funding package, selecting capable engineering and construction firms, and then constantly striving to learn how to get the highest performance out of the plant's design, those elements together make for success. 

CBF's Eastern Shore Director Alan Girard commented further on "how progressive both Easton Utilities and the Town of Easton were in this project, from a process/adoption standpoint. The new treatment plant is a testament to how a few committed folks who want to do the right thing can build the momentum needed for success when they want to."     

It's no accident that both Doug Abbott and Geoff Oxnam bring special enthusiasm to their jobs in an area that many people would prefer not to think about. They are both confirmed water rats and racing sailors. Others on the staff are dedicated Bay anglers. All are proud that Easton's new plant is making a difference for clean water and a healthy Bay.

—John Page Williams
CBF's Senior Naturalist

Learn more about wastewater treatment plant issues here on our website.

A Wastewater All-Star, Part 2

The following is the second part in a series about recent upgrades to an Easton wastewater treatment plant, and how these improvements have helped support our clean water efforts. Read the first part in the series here.

Doug Abbott Checks a Gauge
Plant Manager Doug Abbott checks a gauge. "In champagne and sewage treatment," he says with a chuckle, "it's all about the size of the bubbles." Photo by John Page Williams/CBF Staff.
Because of Easton's foresight in planning for the new plant, it was at the top of the list when the Bay Restoration Fund process began. Despite the fact that the plant was the largest capital project Easton had ever undertaken, the town was able to finance it through a combination of BRF and federal grants (50 percent) and a revolving loan fund operated by the MDE (50 percent). Ratepayers are paying off the loan through their sewer fees, which remain low because of the BRF and federal grants. Easton Utilities and the Town Council planned for the plant to handle around 2.5 million gallons of wastewater per day (mgd) at first but for it to be able to expand to 4 mgd as the population grew.

Construction began in 2005, and the plant began operating on June 30, 2007, (the fifth and--at the time--largest BRF plant to go online). The design for the plant incorporates sophisticated new practices for removing phosphorus and nitrogen, the latter being especially difficult to catch because its waste compounds dissolve so easily in water. It includes advanced filter systems and twin five-stage bacteria-driven bioreactors, making Plant Manager Doug Abbott and his staff shepherds of livestock as surely as any dairy farmer.

Over the course of the 1.75 days (on average) that a batch of wastewater flows through the plant, the "bugs" process it in those five stages, gradually breaking down nitrogen compounds until the element vents off as a stable, odorless gas. In the bioreactor stages, the system alternately adds and takes away oxygen. Adding means spraying it in extremely fine bubbles, for more surface area to make it readily available to the bugs. "In champagne and sewage treatment," Doug Abbott remarked with a chuckle during the 2009 visit, "it's all about the size of the bubbles."  

Screens and filters remove solid material containing most of the phosphorus and some nitrogen. It goes through aerated holding tanks, de-watering centrifuges, and drying systems into a silo for storage for sale to local farmers, who use it as a soil conditioner.  Final disinfection comes from intense ultraviolet radiation. The plant is highly automated, with an alphabet soup of Supervisory Control sensors; Programmable Logic Controllers to optimize efficiency of valves, pumps, aerators, and chemical feeds; and alarm systems that allow the staff of six people to operate the plant on one shift, with members on call if an alarm goes off. Abbott noted that both monitors and sensors are rapidly becoming more sensitive and reliable. 

In just its second year of operation, the Easton plant won an award for operations and maintenance excellence from EPA's Region 3. By our 2009 visit, the plant was already running well below its permit loads of 4 milligrams per liter of nitrogen and 0.3 mg/l of phosphorus. "There's still a lot to learn about Enhanced Nutrient Removal," Doug Abbott said. He was referring to challenges like how to meet the discharge permit's goals on a daily basis, including how to adjust to varying inflow, fine-tuning for weather, and giving the bugs the consistent conditions they need to thrive.

—John Page Williams
CBF's Senior Naturalist

Stay tuned tomorrow for more on how this revolutionary new plant came to be, and what it means for our waters and Bay. In the meantime, learn more about wastewater treatment plant issues here on our website.

A Wastewater All-Star, Part 1

The following is the first part in a series about recent upgrades to an Easton wastewater treatment plant, and how they have helped make the plant more efficient and Bay friendly.

Photo by John Page Williams/CBF Staff.
Where does the money from Maryland's Bay Restoration Fund (aka the "flush fee") go? Does it really make a difference to the Chesapeake?

As of the end of the summer of 2012, 25 of the 67 major wastewater treatment plants across Maryland had completed their upgrades, in the process reducing the amount of nitrogen they release by 1.36 million pounds per year and phosphorus by 198,000 pounds. The other 42 plants are in various stages of planning, design, and construction, with all scheduled to complete their upgrades by the end of the 2016 calendar year. The Bay Restoration Fund is a vital element in Maryland's Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

That is encouraging information, but it's dry. Much more interesting are the stories of the people behind the upgrades at individual plants. Those who do their jobs well are among the All-Stars of the Clean Water Blueprint. Here is the story behind one plant, operated on the Eastern Shore by Easton Utilities

In the 1980s, Easton Utilities built a model plant for the time, using Biological Nutrient Removal, in which the plant operators sprayed wastewater over a 70-acre, terraced field on which they grew hay. Biological and physical processes in the soils treated the wastewater as it flowed slowly toward the plant's discharge into the Choptank River below Dover Bridge. The plant was one of several of this type around the Bay watershed, all sited in areas where using agricultural land was less expensive than creating compact chemical/mechanical systems.

The plant served Easton well for nearly 20 years, but as the town's population grew and the discharge requirements got tighter under commitments to treat waste to the limit of technology, Easton Utilities and the Town Council recognized in 2001 that it was time to begin planning a new one. The terrace system had worked reasonably well for most of each year, but cold winter temperatures slowed the soil processes too much to meet the new limits. Hence they began conversations with Stearns & Wheeler, an environmental engineering design firm in Bowie, MD (now part of GHD, a global firm), and with the Easton community at large.

As is often the case with large infrastructure projects like this one, there was some apprehension in the community about issues like cost, siting, delivery systems, aesthetics, and growth politics. When we visited the plant in 2009, Geoff Oxnam, who was then Communications Manager for Easton Utilities (he's now VP/Operations) commented that Stearns and Wheeler, "did a great job working with the town and the public on design and construction, as well as overall wastewater issues. Between the firm's experienced engineers and Easton Utilities staff, we were able to bring in stakeholders early in the process, make our people available to the public, and create dialogue that brought citizens on board, especially through an open house in the Town Council meeting room." 

Alan Girard, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Eastern Shore Program, commented that he "attended one of those open houses and was impressed with how they got the project out in front of the public. Rates were going to increase regardless, and they hit that point on the head by making the case for the need and assuring the public that they were committed to minimizing the impact on their wallets."

Stay tuned in the coming days for more on how this revolutionary new plant came to be and what it means for our waters and Bay. In the meantime, learn more about wastewater treatment plant issues here on our website.

—John Page Williams

Few Budget Choices Are as Critical as Clean Water

The following op-ed appeared in The Richmond-Times Dispatch yesterday.

IMG_9388It is hard to overstate the importance of wastewater treatment plants in protecting the environment and public health. These clean-water factories take raw sewage and clean it up to meet state and federal water quality standards before discharging it back into our streams and rivers.

Because of wastewater treatment's critical importance to all of us, a coalition of public and private stakeholders have worked together to advocate for government funding for mandated upgrades and improvements. In Virginia, those stakeholders include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Manufacturers Association, as well as other conservation, local government, industry and public utility groups.

In recent years, wastewater treatment plants have played a key role in helping restore the Chesapeake Bay. Plants all across the bay watershed have made it a top priority to modernize and install nutrient reduction technology that cuts the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in wastewater to just a few parts per million. That's important because nitrogen and phosphorus are among the most serious pollutants affecting the bay's health.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 483 significant (large or critically located) wastewater treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay region. Most are publicly owned and operated; 81 belong to private industry. Together, they discharge more than 3 billion gallons of treated wastewater a day into the bay watershed.

EPA calculates that between 1985 and 2009, ongoing upgrades at wastewater plants reduced nitrogen and phosphorus pollution going to the bay by 44 percent and 67 percent, respectively—this despite an additional 3.5 million people moving into the watershed during the same period.

But the upgrades are expensive. From 2007 to 2010, nearly $2 billion in taxes was invested in upgrading wastewater treatment facilities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; more than a half-billion dollars was appropriated by the Virginia legislature alone. Millions more in upstream technology investments have been made by private industry to reduce its impact on these facilities as well.

But the job is far from finished. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality lists 32 wastewater treatment plants, including four in the Richmond area and one in Hopewell, that are now upgrading so that Virginia can achieve its 2017 bay cleanup benchmarks. Many more plants will be added to the list as the state and region fully implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint by 2025.

General Assembly funding of the state's share of these upgrade costs not only will ameliorate local rate increases to citizens; it also will benefit all Virginians by helping restore the bay, a national treasure, recreation and tourism magnet, and a job-creating economic engine.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Manufacturers Association call upon the 2013 General Assembly to continue state funding for these critical wastewater plant upgrades. We applaud Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to invest an additional $106 million in state bonds over the next three years for this purpose and urge the legislature to approve them.

Our state legislators have many difficult funding choices to make. But few are more important than clean water—for neighborhood creeks, the bay, public health, recreation and our economy. Please encourage your legislator to help keep sewer rates affordable, invest in clean water and support the governor’s budget.

—Ann Jennings and Brett Vassey

Ann Jennings is Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She can be reached at ajennings@cbf.org.

Brett Vassey is president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. He can be contacted at bvassey@vamanufacturers.com.

Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.