The goal for the Chesapeake Bay is cleaner, more clear water home to grasses.
A prettier Chesapeake Bay: Less pollution, clear water, abundant bay grasses and thriving fisheries.

As Governor Hogan said in his first State of the State address, “No state can match the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay.” We Marylanders are quite proud of our bay, yet we also know that beneath the bay’s surface, it’s a hot mess.  We’ve been talking about “saving the bay” for decades. The most recent yearly Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay report gave the estuary’s health index a 32/D+.

So you may be surprised to learn that the 2004 “flush fee” signed into law by then Governor Ehrlich, a Republican, has been a grand success. The good news is that we know what actions work and we can pinpoint the Chesapeake Bay’s ongoing pollution hot spots. Maybe, just maybe, with some political will, consumer education, financial investments and hard work, the Chesapeake Bay may be restored to a healthier state in the future. 

The quick & dirty: Why the failing grade?

The key issue is that 18 million people now live in the watershed and the Chesapeake Bay has become a six-state, 64,000-acre pollution trap. Not only did we chop down forests to pave paradise, but we also heavily farmed the watershed. The Chesapeake Bay Program provides an excellent summary of the bay’s many twists and turns. 

Millions of pounds of pollutants (nitrogen and phosphorous) flow into the bay from three key sources: sewage wastewater, polluted rain runoff and agriculture’s runoff.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are the estuary’s pollution bad boys because these chemicals are the main nutrients in fertilizer.  The massive volumes of both chemicals over-fertilize bay algae, causing gross algal blooms that block sunlight and cut off oxygen to the plant life and fisheries below. Add some nasty toxins, and there are many Chesapeake Bay coves and areas you’d dare not swim in, especially on hot summer days

The bay is a complicated ecosystem and though the above explanation is simplified, you get the point. Too much pollution is killing the bay’s ecosystem.    

Poop, pipes and pollution

By 1985, the Chesapeake Bay was officially declared an “impaired” watershed. That same year, Maryland banned phosphorous in detergents. This regulation was a good start as phosphorous pollution decreased and people’s dishes still got squeaky clean.

As you can see in the chart below, during Republican Governor Ehrlich’s term, the Maryland legislature zeroed in on Maryland’s biggest pollution source: sewage wastewater treatment plants. Newer “enhanced nutrient” technology was available that could slash the nitrogen and phosphorous flows from wastewater plants, but upgrading these plants was expensive. Estimated cost: over $1 billion.

Still, in 2004 the Bay Restoration Fund was signed into law requiring all households served by wastewater treatment plants to pay an ongoing $30 yearly “flush fee”. Septic users also pay into the fund; there are 420,000 onsite septic systems in Maryland. Ehrlich didn’t originally propose including septic users, but older and out-dated septic systems also contributed to the problem.  Flush fees are earmarked for waste treatment and septic projects and the funds are not used for the state’s general spending.  Of the collected flush fees, 60 percent fund wastewater plant upgrades. The remaining 40 percent funds septic upgrades and winter crop cover farming, which absorbs excess fertilizer. In 2012, the flush fee was doubled to $60 a year, or $5 a month, to cover increased costs.

“Governor Ehrlich’s Bay Restoration legislation and the resulting reduction in wastewater pollution is the bay’s singular success,” according to longtime bay advocate Gerald W. Winegrad.  He adds, “It’s by far the most bold and far-reaching measure taken in the last ten years that’s helped clean up the Chesapeake Bay.” Winegrad served in the Maryland Legislature from 1983 to 1995 and was the prime sponsor of the detergent phosphate ban.  

One important feature of the Bay Restoration Fund is the fee’s yearly cash flows allowed Maryland to obtain financing to cover the massive upfront costs of upgrading 67 of the state’s biggest waste treatment plants. Most of the 67 plant upgrades are complete with the two mack daddy projects, Back River and Blue Plains, still in the works. Since its inception, the flush fee fund has collected $720 million.

Drum roll please. Check out the flush fee results below. 

Sewage wastewater nitrogen pollution decreased over 60% since 1985. Source: ChesapakeStat
 sewage wastewater treatment plants has decreased  since 1985.
Sewage wastewater phosphorous pollution decreased over 70% since 1985. Source: ChesapeakeStat

What’s the fuss with stormwater fees and chicken poop rules?

You can argue it’s easier to wrap your head around sewage treatment pollution than rain runoff pollution. You can picture treated wastewater leaving a sewage plant via a pipe and entering the Chesapeake Bay. It’s another matter to understand the increasing collective pollution and grime created when rain falls on roads and farmland and washes excess nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay. 

During his first week in office, Hogan canceled O’Malley’s proposed chicken manure phosphorous rules.  Making greenies even more irate, Governor Hogan plans to introduce legislation to repeal the current stormwater fees, dubbed the rain tax.

We’ll explore the Chesapeake Bay’s stormwater and agriculture pollution in detail in the very near future. It’s sort of nice to take a breather and celebrate the flush fees’ positive results before embarking on chicken doody and polluted rain runoff, no?

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.