Short-Term Water Quality Improvements Versus Long-Term Success in Restoring the Chesapeake Bay

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Visual evidence of improving water quality is an excellent sign of progress in the multi-state effort to reduce nutrient and sediment loading in the Chesapeake Bay, but the work required to clean up our watershed is far from complete.

A recent article suggested that the crystal clear water, which has been witnessed in several areas around the Bay, is a sign of improving water quality. In a very localized perspective, that may be completely accurate, and any and all improvements should be celebrated! But true success is still decades or more away. A waterbody of this size—nearly 4,500-square-miles—is an extremely complex ecosystem, and individual tests often do not give a clear report on the health of the estuary. Change in one indicator of water quality does not necessarily indicate an overall improvement or even a trend, as evidenced by a recent fish kill in Middle River.

The linked water clarity story does call out advancements in agricultural practices, wastewater treatment and air quality. A coalition of governments along with private-sector partners within the watershed are making great strides to put into place analysis, regulation, monitoring, and physical improvements like treatment plant upgrades.

One important aspect not included in that list is stormwater runoff, which is among the fastest growing sources of pollution in the estuary. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program watershed model, stormwater contributes 16 percent of nitrogen loads, 16 percent of phosphorus loads, and 25 percent of sediment loads to the Bay annually. Using the latest figures from the Chesapeake Bay Program, the graphic below provides a clearer picture of stormwater’s role in the current nutrient and sediment deposits:

Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Statistics


Note that each of the 2014 totals is lower than the long-term annual average loads. These reduced nutrient loads along with localized test results like the one for clarity described above may be part of a positive trend, but only time, long-term commitment and regular monitoring will tell.

KCI scientists and engineers have been working for several years to put in place the tools and improvements that have helped to jumpstart these trends. For more than a decade, the firm has contributed to improving water quality in the Bay through wastewater treatment plant nutrient removal upgrades, numerous stream and habitat restoration projects, and new and retrofitted stormwater treatment facilities. Since the Chesapeake Bay TMDL was approved in 2012, KCI has been working with state and county agencies to manage the spatial data needed for effective planning, to identify projects and programs to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, and to document progress in annual reports to the state and EPA.

The Chesapeake Bay is both an ecological and economic treasure in the region. The degradation in the watershed over the last 50 years can be turned around, and the multi-state coalition working with the EPA is making progress. But true success is still a distant goal. We should continue to celebrate improvements but always keep the bigger picture in mind—that much work remains to be done.