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.

P1010498
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.


Wanted: Funding for Clean Water

The following op-ed appeared on The Virginian-Pilot yesterday.

Bill Portlock, VA Sewage Treatment PLantsHampton Roads residents expect that when they flush their toilets or drain their bathtubs, the wastewater goes to a sewage treatment plant to be treated and cleaned before it is discharged to our waterways.

As the operator of local treatment plants, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District takes pride in ensuring that the complex network of pipes, plants and related systems works safely, effectively and efficiently. The district is proud to operate some of the most modern wastewater treatment systems available.

That's important from a public health standpoint, but it's also critical to anyone who loves a creek, a river, the Chesapeake Bay and the beauty and economic bounty that our waterways provide.

Many people know that farm animal manure is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. That's why it makes good fertilizer when applied appropriately.

Human waste also contains nitrogen and phosphorus. In such massive quantitiessome 1.7 million people flush toilets every day in Hampton Roads alonethis human-generated nutrient pollution has contributed to the familiar problems plaguing the bay and its rivers: cloudy water, algal blooms, oxygen-starved dead zones, and fish kills.

When HRSD treatment plants were built, nitrogen and phosphorus were not a focus of wastewater treatment, and removal of these nutrients was not required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or by Virginia. Only in more recent years has removal of nitrogen and phosphorus become a focus of wastewater treatment.

HRSD and other wastewater treatment authorities across the Bay region have made it a priority to upgrade and install modern nutrient-removal technology. The technology allows wastewater nitrogen and phosphorus to be reduced to just minute parts per million.

The EPA estimates that treatment plant upgrades kept a whopping 39 million pounds of nitrogen pollution and 6 million pounds of phosphorus pollution from getting into the bay between 1985 and 2009, a reduction of 44 percent and 67 percent respectively. These reductions are producing dramatic and positive results in the health of local streams, rivers, and the bay. While very effective, these upgrades are also expensive.

Recognizing the effectiveness of nutrient-removal technology in restoring the bay, the Virginia General Assembly has generously provided more than a half-billion dollars in grants to local sewage authorities across the state since 2005.

HRSD has been a benefactor of these funds, receiving over $100 million in grant funding toward nutrient removal upgrades at five plants. These grants have eased utility rate increases for citizens and businesses of Hampton Roads while helping provide cleaner water to local streams and rivers. They also have provided needed local jobs.

But there is still a long way to go. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality lists 32 wastewater treatment plants, including two HRSD plants, that are now upgrading in order for Virginia to achieve its 2017 bay cleanup benchmarks.

Fully funding the state's share of the cost will limit rate increases necessary to support these projects and benefit all Virginians by implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and restoring the bay, a national treasure.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and HRSD join with other conservation, local government, industry, and public utility groupsand, we hope, the region's residentsin calling upon the General Assembly to continue state funding for wastewater plant upgrades.

We applaud Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to invest an additional $101 million in state bonds over the next three years for this purpose.

Virginia has many important and competing fiscal needs. Few are more critical, however, than clean water for the bay, public health, recreation, our economy and children's future. We hope the region's residents agree and will encourage their state representatives to fund this important clean water need.

—Christy Everett and Ted Henifin

Christy Everett is Hampton Roads director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Ted Henifin is general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

  Photo: A Virginia sewage treatment plant. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.


Positive News on a Smelly Subject: New Technologies, Policies Improve the Septic Tank

The below article originally appeared in the Bay Journal News Service last week.

Septic-tankWe who make our living lamenting the lack of progress on improving the environment must applaud when it does rear its head, even as we refrain from clapping too hard.

A decade ago there wasn't much of anything hopeful to say about septic tanks from the bay's standpoint: "outhouse technology in the 21st century," I called them; "a 50-year-old grossly polluting waste system…"

Septic tanks had mostly fulfilled their original purpose of protecting human health where central sewers weren't available by filtering bacteria in household waste through the soil.

But this very process ensures that bay-polluting nitrogen in wastes passes into groundwater and thence to streams, rivers and the Chesapeake.

So for bay water quality, there was no such thing as a failing septic tank. They were all failing, all of the time.

Septic tanks also served as a crude substitute for zoning to protect rural lands from development. Significant acreages in most counties were too steep, rocky or soggy to pass soil percolation tests required to site homes on septic.

But still there was sprawl—development that used large lots and prime farm soils to enable developers to pass 'perc' tests.

The septic story had little prospect of changing, I wrote in 2002.

But now, for the first time since outhouse days, the septic tank as we have known it is on the run. In Maryland, the government finally decided that restricting septics is critical to both water quality and anti-sprawl goals. That's a powerful linkage.

In 2011, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed essentially ending development that used septic systems—restricting all but minor subdivisions of a few homes. His proposal closely followed what Worcester County on the lower Eastern Shore has been doing successfully to protect its farmland.

Fierce opposition resulted in a weaker, but still restrictive law. It's estimated the law will eliminate about 50,000 of 116,000 new lots that otherwise would have developed using septic systems in the next couple of decades.

Also, beginning in January, all septic tanks that will still be installed must use a new, more expensive technology that cuts nitrogen pollution in half. Virginia is considering the same technology.

No good deed goes unpunished, and pushback has already begun, part of a broader agenda by several counties that allege restoring the Chesapeake amounts to a "war on rural Maryland."

1000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental land use group, reports several counties are working already on ways to avoid restricting rural development.

Some of the most worrisome are Charles, Cecil and Queen Anne's counties, the group says, as all are under substantial growth pressure.

The law allows counties to designate a portion of their lands outside areas planned for sewer systems where continued sprawl development on septic tanks can continue. This is where some jurisdictions will try to get away with murder, while others will be responsible.

The state's Department of Planning can jawbone against this, and require additional public hearings. The law also precludes septic-based sprawl in areas "dominated" by forestland and agriculture; although the precise meaning of "dominated" was left vague.

The bottom line is that unchecked, several counties probably can and clearly will try to keep on sprawling and polluting.

But just as clearly, the new law affords a footing for citizens who care about farms, forests and the bay to fight back; to engage in a war FOR rural Maryland.

Here's why it's critical. While the progress with septic tanks is remarkable given the last half century of no progress, it's still far from the progress the bay needs.

Both with water pollution and sprawl, the new septic requirements only slow the rate at which things will get worse.

The less-polluting technology will apply mostly to new construction, not to most of the 400,000 septic tanks that already exist across Maryland. (A program to replace failing septics with new technology has done less than 1 percent of existing septic tanks.)

And while new and improved septic tanks cut pollution by about half compared with older versions, they still produce several times as much pollution, per capita, as a modern sewage treatment plant.

"The total (nitrogen) load will not go down from all this…just grow more slowly," said Jay Prager, an expert on septic tanks for the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE).

Meanwhile, he said, to meet its 2025 federal bay cleanup goals, Maryland must actually reduce septic pollution by nearly 40 percent.

Similarly, while the state's recent restriction on the development of rural lots using septic systems is bona fide and dramatic progress on combating sprawl, it still allows thousands of such new homes a year.

"What we've done is a real game changer," said Richard Hall, Maryland's Secretary of Planning. "At the same time it still means we're just digging ourselves into a hole slower. What we need is to quit digging the hole."

—Tom Horton
Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.


Can the long view include septic tanks?

The following story appeared in the Bay Journal News Service.

SewageTreatmentFacilityA Baltimore County, Maryland, sewage treatment facility reduces nitrogen from wastewater. Photo by Garth Lenz.

Don’t be surprised if longtime poop warriors along the Chesapeake Bay’s thickly populated Western Shore are not sympathetic to claims that builders in still rural parts of the watershed should have unlimited use of septic tanks.

Those backyard sewage disposal devices send pollutants into the ground where it can leach into waterways and sometimes drinking water supplies. In Maryland, at least, they are the fastest growing source of Bay pollution, so the long practice of one-by-one septic tank approvals, common throughout the Bay area, doesn’t make sense to those at the cleanup end.

“What we really need to be doing is taking a much more holistic view of the complete picture,” said Ronald Bowen, public works director for Anne Arundel County in Maryland. “How is it we can continue to co-exist, continue to grow economically, while at the same time working toward addressing the sins of the past?”

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is waging an uphill battle to curb the use of septic tanks for new development, uses the county’s plight to make his case. He says the sorry state of Anne Arundel’s dirty rivers—where nearly one third of the pollution comes from septic tanks—provides a powerful warning to still pristine areas.

“That’s the future of this Chesapeake Bay if we don’t get a handle on the proliferation of massive septic housing developments,” O’Malley told reporters last week. “The chunk of pollution that will come from a growing population increasingly relying on septic systems, rather than waste water treatment plants, will outstrip the progress that we are making in other areas.”

To meet federal Bay pollution cleanup requirements, Bowen proposes to retire half of the 40,000 septic tanks serving homes along his county’s 530 miles of sensitive shoreline. The price tag of $760 million includes several techniques, such as the creation of new cluster treatment plants that serve only one community.

Bowen also needs $270 million to upgrade the county’s seven sewage treatment plants, and more than $1 billion to restore stream beds and otherwise deal with storm water runoff. Altogether, that’s almost twice the annual county budget. Like most other watershed counties with similar needs, Anne Arundel doesn’t have the money.

O’Malley hopes to help local governments meet at least some of these costs by persuading the state legislature to raise the “flush tax” on sewer and septic users. 

Of course, no one’s happy about tax or fee increases. But proposed curbs on septic tank use are also drawing fire for a different reason. Rural legislators assert their constituents have a right to seek profits from land development. They contend that curbs on septic tanks are a backdoor tactic to serve another O’Malley goal—limiting growth. 

Those legislators don’t seem troubled by the environmental damage that results from continued rural development and a reliance on septic tanks. Nor do they seem concerned that every taxpayer will share in the price of roads, schools, and the other services new development needs.

It’s easy to understand the complaint of Bayside homeowners with failing septic systems who are suddenly confronted with a bill of $20,000 or more to connect to a sewer system or put in a new, state-of-the-art septic tank. But remember, the cost of septic tank pollution to the rest of us in terms of harmful bacteria in the water supply—we’re talking about us now, not fish—is perhaps beyond calculation.

“If we want to continue the quality of life we have here…it’s going to be more expensive,” said Robert Summers, Maryland’s secretary of the environment. But without a clean water supply, “we have no economy.”

Like Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania both have programs to encourage property owners to upgrade their septic waste technology to the newest nitrogen and phosphorus removing systems.

“I think it’s momentous,” said Allen Knapp, director of onsite sewage and water services for the Virginia Department of Health. “Instead of just issuing permits, we are now trying to achieve a potential outcome: a cleaner environment.”

But Maryland is the most densely populated of the Bay watershed states, and seems to have made the most use of septic systems to serve summer cottages and now mini-mansions along the Bay.

“There is nothing easy about what we’re trying to [do],” Bowen said.

So, that’s the dilemma. Most of us are selfish and short-sighted. We want what we want right now and choose not to think about the future. But just for the sake of argument, wouldn’t it be a lot better to avoid the problem while we still can than to expect future generations to try to fix it?

Maybe that’s too much to ask.

—Karen Hosler

 
Karen Hosler, former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator, and talk show host in Baltimore. Distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.


A new year, a new start! Five resolutions you can make in 2012 to help Save the Bay...

IMG_5776Photo by Miriam Nicklin.

It’s that time of year again…time to make your New Year’s Resolutions! (And hopefully this time, you’ll keep ’em!) Here are 5 resolutions we’re making to Save the Bay in 2012…won’t you join us?

  1. Write your representatives and tell them how important the Bay pollution limits are to ensuring we and future generations have clean water!
  2. Use less fertilizer on your lawn and garden and learn about CBF’s eight steps to ensuring a healthy, beautiful, Bay-friendly yard. Take the Gardeners for the Bay pledge.
  3. Upgrade your septic system to reduce the amount of nitrogen pollution leaking into the Bay. Better yet, live somewhere where you’re connected to a sewer system instead of a septic system. (Did you know the average home on a septic system produces 10 times the amount of pollution than a home on a quarter acre lot connected to the sewer system?! Ten times! Yikes!)  
  4. Get in shape! Bike more, drive less. Take the Cyclist for the Bay pledge.
  5. Last, but not least, become a CBF member, if you have not done so already! Join an important group of individuals dedicated to restoring the health and productivity of our national treasure, the Chesapeake Bay. 

—Emmy Nicklin


Chesapeake News and Dos

Filling you in on the top stories of the week and letting you know how to make a difference!

IMG_2591 Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.

This week in the Watershed:  Hypoxia returns, some much-needed funds, and good crab news 

 

Upcoming Volunteer Opportunities for the Bay

October 8

  • Help clean up the Anacostia, our nation’s “forgotten river!” Join the United by Blue crew to help rehabilitate this Potomac tributary. 

October 9

October 11

  • Voice your opinion on the future of menhaden, “the most important fish in the sea,” in Annapolis, Maryland. This meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is open to public comment so please attend. We need your help to let these officials know just how important this fish is to the Bay!
  • Join CBF and REI for a viewing of “Gasland” in Richmond, Virginia. Clips from this documentary about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” will be shown followed by a conversation about possible fracking in George Washington National Forest.  

October 12

  • Help fortify stream buffers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania along Witmer Run by planting trees with CBF. Help stop sediment and nutrients before they get to our waterways.

October 15

Ongoing

 

Adam Wickline

 

If you have an upcoming Bay-related restoration event and you need volunteers, please let us know by contacting CBF’s Community Building Manager, Adam Wickline: awickline@cbf.org. Do you enjoy working with fellow Bay Lovers to help save the Chesapeake? Become a CBF Volunteer to receive notifications about upcoming volunteer opportunities. 

 



Notes from the Education Field, Part 1: Students Learn First-Hand About Stormwater Devastation

DSC_0024
Photo by Tiffany Granberg/CBF Staff.

September is a month of beginnings and endings. The long warm days of summer wind down; migratory birds prepare for departure. Of course, most notably is the beginning of the school year. Students all across the nation enter new grades, start new classes, and sport their new clothes for the year. 

Here at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), September means the start of the fall field season for our 15 education programs, some administering one-day trips, while others conduct three-day overnight excursions. Students from Pennsylvania to Virginia will load up CBF boats, canoes, and even tractors to go out and experience the Chesapeake and its watershed. They will learn about its natural treasures as well as its troubles, and what they can do to make change. 

DSC_0031 But this week, as the Merrill Center Education Program began its season with a group from Annapolis Area Christian School, things were different. The water from last week’s torrential downpour had finally made its way down from the Susquehanna and into the Bay, creating a brown milky mess strewn with tires, plastic bottles, trees, etc. Students saw first-hand a system dangerously out-of-balance as they loaded onto CBF’s 40-foot workboat Marguerite to investigate the waters. Without even pulling away from the dock, they could already see the impacts of last week’s flood. The water resembled chocolate milk. Logs, presumably from Pennsylvania, drifted by on this blue-sky day. As the Marguerite went further out into the Bay, the story did not change. Mats of debris, trash, and even what appeared to be a bowling ball floated all around. Tiffany Granberg, one of CBF’s educators, described the scene as a “cesspool.”

DSC_0015 After lunch, the students shifted gears and boarded canoes to explore Black Walnut Creek, the small tributary bordering the Merrill Center property. As they paddled past tree-lined shores, Belted Kingfishers flew overhead chattering away at each other. Small coves on either side protected pockets of lush marshes, just starting to turn from summer green to a golden fall hue. Jason Spires, another CBF educator, asked the students to compare the water quality of the creek to that of the Bay they had seen in the morning. After a few thoughtful moments, they conceded that even though the water here was still murky, it certainly was not as bad as the Bay. “Why do you think the water quality is better here?” Spires asked. “Look around. What do you see all along the shores?” This is what our educators call the “aha! moment.” In a mere instant, these students got the connection. In a creek surrounded by trees and marsh, the water is protected against pollution. Furthermore, with poor stormwater controls and reduced natural flood buffers and filters such as forests and wetlands, the Bay is taking a big water quality hit.   

This is the beauty of CBF’s environmental education. Within the walls of a classroom, it is hard to make real-world connections such as the one just described. For more than 40 years, our education programs have provided teachers in the watershed the opportunity to do exactly that and turn information in a book into a memory of sight, sound, smell, touch, and sometimes even taste.

—Adam Wickline 

 

To learn more about stormwater issues and what you can do to help, please visit CBF’s Clean Water, Healthy Families Initiative website: http://www.cleanwaterhealthyfamilies.org/. To learn more about CBF’s award-winning education program, visit: http://www.cbf.org/page.aspx?pid=260. Help us fight for clean water now! Click  here for more information. Visit our Facebook album for more pictures of the stormwater's devastation: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150366028460943&set=a.10150366027945943.398340.8914040942&type=1&theater

 SatelliteImage_en

 



Ask a Scientist: Understanding the Bay pollution diet and what it means for the Eastern Shore of Virginia

CBF_Kosek_1 Recently, we’ve had a lot of questions about why the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s required pollution reductions to meet the Bay TMDL or pollution diet are higher than the rest of the state. One individual asks, “What I don't understand is why the Eastern Shore of VA must reduce nitrates by 25 percent, but Virginia Beach by only 4 percent. The DEQ [Virginia Department of Environmental Quality] is placing an extreme burden on our locale by this mandate. Both our Board of Supervisors (Accomack and Northampton) are alarmed indeed.”

Because there have been so many questions surrounding this issue, we asked CBF’s Virginia Senior Scientist Mike Gerel to shed some light on the Bay TMDL or “pollution diet,” and what it means for Virginia:

Virginia made the decision (not the federal government) last November in their Virginia Bay-wide “Phase 1” Bay cleanup plan to assign a higher percentage level of effort to agriculture compared to other pollution sources. Since the majority of the nitrogen pollution load from the Eastern Shore is from agricultural lands (around 70 percent as of 2009), communities like Accomack were assigned more nitrogen pollution reductions compared to communities with fewer agricultural lands.

We believe there are several reasons Virginia chose to require more pollution reductions from agricultural lands in their Phase 1 plan. Mandated upgrades of sewage treatment plants serving urban communities have achieved substantial pollution reductions over the last 25 years (a 42 percent nitrogen cut, compared to a 28 percent cut for agricultural lands). Most large plants will be at or near state-of-the-art by later this year, so further reductions are not readily available with current technology. Next, the McDonnell Administration made it very clear during the Phase 1 plan development that they were going to pursue the most cost-effective solutions. The costs to install conservation practices to cut nitrogen pollution on agricultural lands (up to $100 per pound of nitrogen) are significantly less expensive than pursuing cuts on urban lands ($1,000s per pound of nitrogen). Lastly, as of 2009 across the Virginia Bay watershed, agricultural lands generate a greater percentage of the total nitrogen loading (32 percent) than do urban lands (10 percent), and thus, were assigned a comparatively higher percentage of nitrogen reductions moving forward.

Keep in mind that the percent nitrogen cuts noted in your question that were assigned to Accomack (25 percent cut) and urban communities like Arlington or Virginia Beach (4-5 percent cut) do not include additional nitrogen reductions required of some urban localities with large sewage treatment plants. For example, the Phase 1 plan requires seven large plants operated by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District that serve Virginia Beach and nearby cities—the majority of the remaining large plants that do not deliver state-of-the-art treatment—to complete upgrades by 2023 that will cut nitrogen pollution an additional 6 million pounds .

Virginia is currently working with localities to develop the “Phase 2” cleanup plan that will define local responsibilities under the Bay TMDL. The state has some flexibility in this plan to adjust locality-specific goals provided the overall Bay TMDL goals are met. Locality input on the Phase 2 plan is due to the state by October, with a final plan due for release in March 2012.

There is no question that the Chesapeake Bay system is complex, as are the new cleanup plans designed to restore it after more than 30 years of failure. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has been actively responding to questions from localities and other local stakeholders who are newly engaged in the details of Bay cleanup planning. To further assist this process, we are working with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to develop a series of workshops for Virginia’s Planning District Commissions (PDCs) in August. This will provide an opportunity for PDC and locality staff to voice concerns and seek answers to questions from the DCR staff who will prepare the final Phase 2 plan.

Some have said that pollution from individual communities represent “a drop in the bucket” for the Bay’s sad condition. The problem is there are drops into the Bay’s “bucket” from thousands of sources and communities across its massive 64,000 square-mile watershed that, in total, have led to an unhealthy Bay. The bottom line is that farmers, sewage treatment plant operators, towns and cities, developers, citizens—everyone—throughout the watershed will need to do more to help fully restore our local streams and the Bay. Virginia is working hard to pursue on-the-ground solutions that balance water quality, economic, and community needs across the 15-year implementation period of the new Bay cleanup effort.

We encourage you to contact your local officials and urge them to move forward on the steps necessary to ensure the cleanup effort delivers the healthy streams, productive shellfish waters, open beaches, clean water sources, and the restored Bay that is so important to Virginia communities, especially those on the Eastern Shore.

Thank you again for your interest in this important issue.

—Mike Gerel, Virginia Senior Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation


Middle-Aged Tarzans Hurtling into the James? What Are They Thinking?

Today's guest blog is from Krista Schlyer, a professional photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers who has been documenting the pollution issues plaguing the Chesapeake Bay. Last time we heard from Krista she was exploring the Anacostia River in Maryland. She has since moved on to Virginia's James River.

Remember when every kid had a swimming hole and every river a rope swing? I remember heading down to the creek swinging a metal pail with an apple and sandwich Ma made for me, fishing pole on my shoulder, Albert waiting for me at our favorite spot. Wait, no, that was Little House on the Prairie. But I swam in rivers once, I think. Don’t remember. But I do remember very clearly the day when I was about 9 years old and my mom wouldn’t let us go swimming with a group of kids in the St. Joe River in northern Indiana. A friend of hers had recently gotten a chunk of glass lodged in his leg while swimming in the river, and it was off limits to us ever after.

Not being able to swim in a river on a hot day is kind of like being dehydrated, having a glass of water right in front of you but knowing it is at least a little bit poisonous. It’s torture, the deepest kind of alienation from the earth. But I’ve always figured we were all in the same boat. I didn’t think people swam in urban rivers any more, which is why during my trip to Richmond to cover the James River for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, my jaw dropped wide open when I saw a whole community of people swimming off the city’s riverbank. My first inclination was to stop the people around me and say, “Did you see this? What the crack are they doin?” Multiple rope swings were set up along a stretch of the river in downtown Richmond. Kids and adults alike waited in line for their turn at the rope. Grown men hollered Tarzan yells and tried to outdo each other when it came their turns. Is this Mars? 1950? A rerun of Gentle Ben?

Few people swim in the Potomac or the Anacostia Rivers, in part because it is illegal in the District of Columbia due to concerns about the health of the water. I once did a triathlon swim in the Potomac, but there were daily tests of the water quality leading up to the event. Had there been a good rain, the swimming portion of the event would have been canceled rather than risk illness of swimming in the river. So seeing these apparently normal human beings swimming in the James made my head spin. It looked like so much fun. It occurred to me, maybe the James is just that much cleaner than the Potomac.

No, not really. The sewage that flows into the river after large rains pours in downstream of where most people swim, which helps increase water quality for swimmers. But the suburbs and rural agriculture runoff that enter the James upstream ensure that unhealthy chemicals and fecal matter are part of the water here just as they are in the Potomac. Swimmers can get ear and intestinal infections, and who knows what else, but the idea of not swimming in the river must be worse than swimming in a polluted river. How’s that for a choice?

On a walk along the James the following morning, I happened across one of the signs the city of Richmond displays to explain the sewage overflow system to its citizens. In an unfortunate choice of colors, the brown sign has a caricature of a fish who looks quite pleased with himself for swimming above the outflows of sewage coming from urban Richmond. The text supports the contentment of the poster-fish, saying the fish and birds are not harmed by sewage because the pollutants are mixed into the river water by the rapids. Water + poo = smiley. The sign also reads: “Releasing storm water here two or three times a year is an economically and socially prudent way to combine the impact of a vibrant urban community with the need for a clean and healthy river.” I’m not sure how putting sewage in the river makes it cleaner and healthier, but I’m no expert. And that fish sure looks happy.

The reflections of the city off the river in soft morning light, combined with thoughts of a city of middle-aged Tarzans hurtling themselves into the James, highlight what an amazing resource the river is. This city seems in the process of a great revitalization. There are terrific restaurants featuring local foods, there are new galleries and river parks, the kind of things that lead to healthier living and greater quality of life. But soft-pedaling the impact of human waste, street and industrial runoff, and agricultural pollutants flowing into the river seems unnecessary. We have made strides on water quality. Many rivers are in better shape than they were a couple of decades ago, thanks to the Clean Water Act. But we have a long way to go before we can tell people they no longer have to make a choice between swimming in our rivers and their health. Pathogens with ominous names like vibrio, cyanobacteria and crypto sporidium, along with mercury from coal plants and nitrates from farm and lawn runoff, pose potentially serious health risks to people and wildlife. Back in the 1950s and 60s we may have had the excuse that we didn’t know the impact of human pollution on our watersheds. We no longer have that excuse. Now it comes down to a choice between making important changes, or continuing business as usual and accepting our alienation from our own rivers.

On August 23, 2010, Virginia released its latest 303d Water Quality Report. According to the report, the number of waterways on the state's "dirty waters list" continues to increase. Find out more about the report on CBF.org.

For more information about the continuing health hazardous posed in our waterways, read our Bay Daily Blog post, "Increased Risk of Dangerous Infections from the Bay" and download our 2009 Bad Water report, "The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region."