Varied Approaches Make Progress Improving Water Quality in the Chesapeake Bay

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are more than 40,000 impaired water bodies in the United States. Causes range from pesticides to heavy metals, sediment to pathogens. Over the last several decades, regulatory and government agencies, land owners and citizens have made great strides in reducing pollution and improving water quality. But for the 200-mile-long Chesapeake Bay, and many other river and tidal systems, all those efforts combined have not been enough to make sufficient progress in the fight against ecosystem degradation.

In 2010 the EPA put the Chesapeake, the nation’s largest estuary, on a focused and rigorous pollution diet by establishing and enforcing total maximum daily loads (TMDL)—a scientific estimate of the maximum amount of pollution a body of water can absorb while still meeting water quality standards. In the case of the bay, models identified high concentrations of sediment, phosphorous and nitrogen as main causes for poor water quality. Calculations determined that reductions of between 20 and 25 percent of each pollutant would be required for the estuary to be considered fishable and swimmable. In the process, the EPA also set a strict milestone schedule requiring that 60 percent of planned water quality measures be implemented by 2017 and full compliance by 2025.

“The biggest challenge is getting everyone in the watershed to do their part in addressing pollutants,” said Maryland Secretary of the Environment Robert M. Summers, Ph.D. “Nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment are introduced into the water from virtually everything that we do from agriculture to construction to homes to sewage to industry. We worked for years to develop and apply our procedures for modeling, monitoring, analysis, allocation and responsibility.” Working with multiple clients across the six-state watershed, KCI is playing an important role in analyzing, designing and implementing measures to help restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay pollution diet is actually a combination of 92 smaller TMDLs that together set pollutant limits sufficient to meet water quality standards. Compliance will have a significant impact on thousands of streams, lakes and rivers throughout the 64,000-square-mile watershed.


KCI is assisting MSHA with GIS analysis of aerial photography to accelerate the process of delineating impervious areas.

The first step for any TMDL compliance program is to define a clear baseline by collecting data about water quality treatment measures currently in place. For many agencies, including the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA), that foundation is developed geographic information systems (GIS). KCI is assisting the agency in developing their database and application portfolio as well as compiling and verifying existing data. MDOT SHA owns and maintains approximately 3,900 water quality facilities, including trenches, swales, ponds, and basins, and knowing what is in place creates a snapshot in time of water treatment, credits earned, and associated loads.

The team is also capturing the agency’s impervious surface areas, such as pavement and buildings, and identifying what and how much is treated by water quality systems, called best management practices (BMP). This baseline data not only creates a starting point from which future milestones are measured, but also allows MDOT SHA to more effectively manage outstanding and completed actions. This wealth of information, available in a consolidated and centralized repository, standardizes reporting and streamlines business operations.


Engineers are using the compiled data for planning and scenario development to select potential sites for installation and retrofit of water quality measures as well as forest, stream and wetland restoration strategies. KCI has built several models that leverage GIS to more efficiently and precisely identify the best sites in terms of soils, drainage area, right-of-way and utilities. The flexibility and scalability inherent in the models allow for integration with any target database and delivery of data in compliance with regulatory standards and requirements.

At the Maryland Port Administration, planning efforts had to accommodate constraints unique to the shipping industry—acres of pavement for cargo storage and movement, numerous buildings, limited vegetation and few existing stormwater facilities. Currently, the port is treating 16 percent of its impervious areas. To deliver the best return on investment compared with feasibility of implementation, KCI’s team focused on trying to identify and prioritize a mix of on-site conventional BMPs and area-wide approaches, like inlet filters, permeable pavement and street sweeping.

In addition to focusing on new or retrofitted water quality measures, one Maryland county is looking at the efficiencies of existing facilities. KCI is conducting a study of dry stormwater management ponds that have developed wetland conditions over time and may now be functioning more like a wet pond or shallow marsh system. Scientists are monitoring storm flow and runoff quality in and out of the ponds to measure pollution reductions. “These self-converted ponds could be functioning at higher efficiencies and removing hundreds of additional pounds of nitrogen than expected,” said environmental scientist Michael J. Pieper, CSE. “It’s possible the county could apply that difference and receive credit as part of the TMDL process without having to retrofit these BMPs.”

Johnston Run in Franklin County, Pa., currently has no local TMDL, but it is on the state’s list of impaired waterways and lies within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The citizens of Mercersburg Borough recently adopted a wellness initiative and have taken it one step forward to look at their watershed and how it interrelates with the health of their community. KCI’s study recommended a variety of measures ranging from urban stormwater and stream restoration to agricultural BMPs as well as education projects to reduce pollutants at their source. Any projects implemented will provide credits for load reductions that the county can use in meeting the state’s TMDL goals.


The efficiency study is indicative of how ecosystem restoration is still very much an evolving science. “It’s a learning process,” said Vice President Joseph J. Pfeiffer Jr., PWS. “There is no absolute in the environmental industry, especially in pollution, because so many variables are at play.” KCI’s work outside of the watershed involves cutting edge strategies that may assist with TMDL compliance for the Chesapeake and other water bodies throughout the United States.

Pfeiffer and his team have been brokering engineering, environmental, regulatory and economic approaches in search of overall improvements at Grand Lake St. Marys (GLSM). KCI developed an ecosystem restoration plan for the 21-square-mile inland lake that is now rebounding from a near ecological collapse. In 2010, algal blooms forced regulators to issue public warnings advising no contact with the water based on high levels of mycrocystin toxin. Programmed improvements at the lake, which has an EPA-issued TMDL, have included direct intervention measures like dredging and alum treatments; end of pipe pollution prevention such as an innovative engineered ecosystem hybrid called the Prairie Creek Treatment Train; as well as economic opportunities like loan incentives to expand businesses that specialize in green technologies.

With so many moving pieces of the TMDL puzzle, addressing issues independently creates a lack of synergy. We’ve moved toward brokering some of those pieces into a commonality of actions to create an overall improvement.

Joseph J. Pfeiffer Jr., SPWSVice President, Regional Practice Leader

Joseph J. Pfeiffer Jr., SPWS

In North Carolina, KCI’s environmental scientists and construction teams have used full-delivery methodologies to help the state’s Ecosystem Enhancement Program quickly and efficiently complete a backlog of restoration work. Using this fast-paced approach, KCI locates and purchases a property and completes all necessary design and construction, often cutting typical design-bid-build schedules by up to a year, before turning the site over to the client. To date, the firm has completed more than 20 full delivery projects ranging from small sites to 60 acres of new wetlands and more than three miles of stream restoration. Accelerated delivery is an important alternative to consider with a program as large as the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, as compressing procurement timelines could help agencies meet the 2017 and 2025 milestone compliance dates.

Expedited project delivery alternatives, like full delivery, could assist jurisdictions in meeting required milestones dates set out in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. KCI’s largest full delivery project completed to date is the $5 million Farrar Dairy restoration that included 10,000 feet of stream and 60 acres of wetlands.
Currently, DelDOT’s street sweeping program cleans approximately 9,000 miles of roadway each year in New Castle County. To meet compliance goals, state regulatory agencies suggested nearly doubling the total to more than 17,000. KCI’s analysis demonstrated that by targeting roads prone to gathering waste, pollution removal goals could be met by sweeping approximately 8,500 miles.

Alternatively, the firm’s Water Resources Practice is helping the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) to implement a science-based approach to street sweeping. Initial drafts of DelDOT’s new Phase I National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit recommended doubling the street sweeping miles in New Castle County to increase pollutant removal. Because current budgets could not accommodate the additional mileage, the agency asked that KCI review current practices and available research to identify the highway types that have the highest pollutant loads, e.g. those with curbs or heavily traffic volumes. By using modeling and GIS to identify target roadways and set sweeping frequencies, the team was able to demonstrate a greater potential for pollutant removal while sweeping less total road miles than the program currently in place. The ability to increase efficiency within budget restraints may be a critical factor in meeting TMDL requirements.


The successes, innovations, new science and lessons learned as part of the compliance process can be applied throughout the bay’s watershed, the country and beyond, as water bodies around the world face similar challenges from pollution. Officials in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, one of Maryland’s sister states, have expressed interest in water quality solutions that could be applied to Guanabara Bay, the site of the 2016 Olympic sailing competition. Knowledge transfer and economic opportunities like these abound throughout the world, and TMDL-related investments are resulting in not only healthier streams and rivers, but also in the creation of thousands of jobs for analysts, scientists, engineers and construction workers tasked with implementing restoration programs.

Economics aside, the most important fact still remains—pollution in many water bodies is reaching critical stages. “There is nothing more fundamental to public health and the economy than clean water,” said Summers. “It’s critical that people understand that while the actions they take to protect water quality will achieve the standards in the Chesapeake Bay, they will also have tremendous and necessary benefits locally to their streams, rivers and groundwater.” Whether a small tributary or a regional undertaking, KCI continues to lead the industry in planning, innovation, and execution strategies that make measurable impacts in the water that we depend on.