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Analysis: Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Milestones Are A Mixed Bag

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Reducing water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay has so far come in fits and starts.
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Reducing water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay has so far come in fits and starts.

It's been two years since the Environmental Protection Agency and several states started work on a campaign to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  Preliminary results are in, and environmental reporter Sabri Ben-Achour sat down with Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to see how things are going.

What kinds of things people are doing to affect Bay cleanup?

"On agriculture, we're talking about planting trees next to streamsides that will filter pollution. Farmers are also implementing crops that they're planting during winter — called covercrops — that will soak up nutrients and prevent them from leeching or running off. In urban areas, we're talking about doing things that will control storm water, like allowing the stormwater to infilitrate back into the ground instead of running off through storm drains. So there's a whole suite of practices that, between now and 2025, we need to implement to reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay."

Can you run through how D.C., Maryland and Virginia are doing on these two-year milestones?

"They're all doing pretty well in terms of wastewater, sewage treatment plant upgrades. Virginia, for example, isn't doing as well as we would like to see on things like forrested buffers. In Maryland, where they have focused on certain things like covercrops, they have successes there, and Maryland has put an emphasis on that. So, it's sort of a mixed bag of progress and lack thereof, but overall we're happy with the outcome."

Pennsylvania has only made 4 out of 10 cleanup goals that were looked at. Are the northern states that aren't living on the Bay carrying their weight in terms of preventing pollution?

"I don't know that that's necessarily fair. I think that what is true is that all states definitely need to do their share. Pennsylvania is certainly a large part of the solution to bay cleanup. They're the biggest landmass that feeds into the Chesapeake, and they are. They're more actively pursuing compliance in terms of what agriculture needs to do. There are some pretty aggressive laws in Pennsylvania that apply to agriculture, and the issue has been lack of enforcement of those laws."

How do you see the billion-dollar upgrades in some counties getting paid for?

"I think it's going to come from a variety of sources. For instance, in Maryland in the last legislative session, they doubled the Bay Restoration Fund, which is paying for sewage plant upgrades in Maryland and other improvements to infrastructure. There's a cost for implementing the cleanwater blueprints, but there's a cost for inaction. And frankly, we've been suffering those costs for decades now, with losses of fisheries and losses of recreational opportunities and commercial watermen going out of business. The other thing to keep in mind is that as we expend dollars to clean up the bay, we're contributing to local economies, we're creating jobs. Ad so we'd rather look at what either we lost because we had dirty water and will continue to lose unless we clean it up, and the benefits of clean water."

Based on what you've seen, do you think the Chesapeake Bay will be a different place in a decade?

"Yes. I am an eternal optimist. What we're seeing right now is a delay. We're putting things on the ground, and you don't see the immediate benefit of those, but I think in 10 years time, we should see marked improvement in the bay, as long as we keep the trajectory for a 2025 cleanup date."

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