Chesapeake Bay Dead Zones Are Fading, But Proposed EPA Cuts Threaten Success


The beach at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Annapolis, Md. "You give nature half a chance and she will produce every single time," says Will Baker, the nonprofit's president.
Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR
The beach at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Annapolis, Md. "You give nature half a chance and she will produce every single time," says Will Baker, the nonprofit's president.

Drive east from Washington and eventually you run smack into the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, the massive estuary that stretches from the mouth of the Susquehanna River at Maryland's northern tip and empties into the Atlantic 200 miles away near Norfolk, Va.

The Chesapeake is home to oysters, clams, and famous Maryland blue crab.

It's the largest estuary in the United States.

And for a long time, it was one of the most polluted.

Decades of runoff from grassy suburban yards and farm fields as far north as New York state, plus sewage and other waste dumped by the hundreds of gallons, made the Chesapeake so dirty that by 1983, the crab population had plummeted to just 2 percent of what Capt. John Smith saw when he explored the bay in the 1600s.

For years, people tried to clean it up. States and the federal government spent millions of dollars. The first effort began in 1983 — officially launched by President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union Address.

And each time, the cleanup efforts failed. The bay's health wasn't getting much better.

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By 2009, when the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to get the EPA to do more to clean up the bay, the Chesapeake's dead zone was so big it often covered a cubic mile in the summer.

Dead zones form when the water becomes too concentrated with nitrogen and phosphorus — allowing algal blooms to grow and block out sunlight from reaching beneath the water and causing populations of fish and crabs to plummet.

Then, last summer, scientists recorded no dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay. And wildlife was returning, too. The EPA's new plan seemed to be working.

"When I first heard that spawning sturgeon were back in the bay, my reaction was, 'Yes! We can get this done,'" says Will Baker, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation's president. "It's really exciting. You give nature half a chance and she will produce every single time."

Scientists and advocates for the bay say that success is fragile. And it may be even more so now. The Trump administration's budget proposal calls for eliminating the program's $73 million in funding.

"I think if we saw the federal government withdraw, you would see the Chesapeake Bay revert to a national disgrace right as it's becoming a great national source of pride," Baker says. "Things are going in the right direction, but nature can turn on a dime and I don't think it's a scare tactic to say within the next eight years, we could see the last 35 years of effort go down the tubes and start to change direction."

And that could have implications not only for the future of the bay cleanup, but for any other states hoping to clean up some of the country's other most polluted waters — from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico.

Out on the Chesapeake Bay

Locals like 22-year-old Matt Gaskins say the difference in the bay's health is noticeable.

He's on a boat with two of his friends. A handful of blue crabs click in a bucket resting in the middle of his small boat. Gaskins says he can tell how the bay's doing by how many crabs he's catching. He was out on the South River the day before.

"Everyone pretty much around the whole river has been doing really well," he says. "The rockfish are doing really well this year, and also the crabs are doing really well."

Scientists from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation say that's proof the cleanup efforts are making a difference.

"The trend is for a smaller volume of the dead zone over time, which is really encouraging. For the last two years, they never measured water that had zero oxygen, which is the first time that it had ever happened in the history of collecting data," says Beth McGee, a scientist with the foundation.

But why is the cleanup finally working now, after all those years of trying?

In 2009, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the EPA, trying to compel the agency to enact a tougher cleanup plan. In the past, a group of six states that make up the Chesapeake Bay watershed — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York, plus the District of Columbia, had put in place various pollution control plans to limit the fertilizer and sewage they released into the bay.

But without sufficient funding or any real consequences for states that didn't meet benchmarks, things didn't really improve.

The Obama administration needed to change that. To do it, the administration came up with a novel interpretation of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which gives the federal government the power to require that states write a "pollution diet" for any body of water the feds declare polluted. States have to calculate how much of each pollutant a body of water can take on, and then figure out how to hit those numbers.

But actually making the reductions had always been voluntary. Only one in five of these pollution diets had actually been implemented, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wanted to ensure states followed through. The Obama administration would use its powers under the Clean Water Act to compel states to take action — by withholding funding from states that didn't follow through on implementing their cleanup plans.

Baker says that's part of the challenge — cleaning up the Chesapeake requires cooperation not just from the places that have the bay in their backyards — but also from states in the whole watershed whose rivers and streams feed into the bay.

"The critical role of the EPA has been to be the glue that holds the six states and the District of Columbia together — working in concert to save the Chesapeake Bay system," Baker says.

How do you convince states without that tangible tie to make sacrifices for a bay they don't even border?

"The Chesapeake Bay is a system of six states, 64,000 square miles," Baker says. "And when you work in Pennsylvania for clean water in the Chesapeake Bay, you're really working for clean water in Pennsylvania."

The EPA's plan was controversial from the start. The American Farm Bureau Federation sued over it. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt signed an amicus brief supporting the Farm Bureau's position. He's now running the EPA — the agency that is tasked with administering it.

The Supreme Court declined to take up the case — letting a lower court's ruling stand that upheld the program.

Farm to bay

Chip Bowling's farm sits on banks of the Wicomico River in southern Maryland. The Wicomico flows into the Potomac River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

He farms 1,600 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat on land that's been in his family for seven generations.

"When we got our work done, we literally would jump out of our work clothes and put a pair of shorts on and T-shirt, and run down here, and either swim, fish, get on the boat," he says.

He's been doing that more than 50 years.

"If you walked at the end of this pier when I was a kid, you'd see aquatic grass growing," Bowling says. "You actually had a hard time walking through it because the grass was so lush underwater."

That lush grass provided a habitat for crabs and fish. Now, it's beginning to return.

Agriculture was a big focus of the cleanup plan. As chairman of the National Corn Growers Association, Bowling and his organization joined the lawsuit. In Maryland, for example, the state imposed regulations as part of the cleanup that required farmers to write pollution diets for their farms.

The federal government provided money to help, like funds for planting buffer strips between cropland and waterways that feed into the bay. States wrote their own plans to meet federal benchmarks and the federal government could withhold funding from states that didn't comply.

That upset farmers, who felt the EPA was going too far.

But Bowling has come around.

"Nobody likes rules," he says. "Nobody really likes regulations. But you also know that you have to have both."

What changed? The plan appeared to be working.

Bowling, who once joined a lawsuit to rule the program unconstitutional, is fighting for the program's survival.

"It was a struggle to get there," he says. "I was critical in the beginning. What we do know now is that working together, we have figured out a way — with funding — to get those programs in place and to get the bay on track."

But the big part of that, at least for Bowling, is funding. And the Trump administration has proposed cutting it entirely from the federal budget — from $73 million to zero.

For Billy Crook, a commercial crabber who makes runs on the Chesapeake, a healthy bay can have a big impact on his family.

"I got a bunch of little kids. I had a good year last year, so they got a trip to Disney World," he says.

But that doesn't mean he gives the EPA credit.

"The EPA — they do some good, but mostly, they do a lot of talk," he says, leaning over the side of his boat. "They always talk about putting money in the bay. We never see the physical evidence of them doing much."

Bowling may support the Chesapeake Bay's cleanup program, but that doesn't mean he's clamoring for a similar program elsewhere — such as in the Mississippi River watershed. Runoff into the rivers and streams there feed the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone — predicted this year to cover an area the size of New Jersey.

"I can guarantee you, they're not going to ask for one like the Chesapeake Bay," Bowling says. "Hopefully we won't have a mandate nationwide. In my opinion, knowing what we're doing, I think that voluntary is a great way to start. The mandate made us do it, but I can guarantee you we would still change the way we farm."

Lauren Lurkins, director of natural and environmental resources for the Illinois Farm Bureau, says farmers in her state have increasingly prioritized water cleanup over the last few years, but that a Chesapeake-like program would be a step too far for states bordering the Mississippi River.

"It's a huge land mass that is covered and it gets really complicated and it makes for a bigger effort that is pushed down from the federal government," Lurkins says. "(Illinois farmers) don't have the ability to help shape or start to engage in a plan that covers 31 states or even half of that. It's just something that's brought down on top of them."

Even EPA officials under the Obama administration — and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — have refrained from touting the bay cleanup as a program ready for adoption elsewhere.

"We're not talking about cleaning up the waters of the world. We're talking about one iconic national treasure. If others can use the protocols that have been put in place here so successfully, go for it," Baker says.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who's been advocating for the Chesapeake cleanup for decades, is more confident the plan can be employed in other places. Even so, he acknowledges adopting the plan elsewhere won't likely happen in the near future.

"I think this model will expand and be used in other parts of the country," he told NPR. "There's no question that if we had a different administration that put a higher priority on the environment, that it would be more aggressive in using this type of model in other places in the country."

During his confirmation hearing, Pruitt told Cardin he promised to preserve the program. The EPA did not respond to a request from NPR for an interview.

But Cardin says he's optimistic about the Chesapeake cleanup's future. White House budgets are just proposals — and almost every federal program has an advocate somewhere in Congress.

"I've talked to my Democratic and Republican colleagues and they're very supportive of the federal role in the Chesapeake Bay program," he says. "It's in everyone's interest to preserve this unique body of water. It's not of one state or one region, but a national treasure."

Bowling is also confident the funding won't disappear.

"We think that when the new administration figures out what they're going to cut and how they're going to cut it, that there's still going to be funding left for programs like environmental cleanup," Bowing says. "I can guarantee you we're doing something in D.C. today to make sure that we pass on to the administration and Administrator Pruitt what we're doing works and we need funding to get there. I don't think they're going to allow something that's come so far to go away."

But funding for new programs? That will be a tough sell.

A couple of years ago, environmentalists outside the watershed may have looked eagerly to the Chesapeake Bay as a model cleanup they could adopt in their own backyards.

But now there's an even more basic worry — whether the model plan itself will continue.

Selena Simmons-Duffin produced and Jolie Myers edited this radio story.

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