Maryland shifts Chesapeake Bay cleanup strategy

correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Maryland would shift away from paying farmers for using best practices to prevent pollution. That program will remain in place. The new, additional efforts that could pay for results of mitigation efforts would funnel additional money to landowners and farmers, and the shift on payments is still under development. The story has been corrected.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore announced a new tack in trying to restore the Chesapeake Bay on Thursday, shifting away from broad-stroke efforts to return the nation’s largest estuary to its heyday.

Instead, the state will focus on targeted strategies that rehabilitate specific, shallow-water habitats. The change to focus on many smaller sources of pollution — often flowing off private property — will require more coordination to implement.

“We’re all accountable,” Moore said at announcement event on the Eastern Shore. “We’re all the beneficiaries of it. And therefore, we all have a collective responsibility to make sure that we’re doing the work.”

The strategy shift reflects a growing public consensus that the bay remains significantly degraded despite 40 years of cleanup work.

A May report by the federal Chesapeake Bay Program found that not only were most states failing to meet their pollution-reduction targets but the significant reductions that have been made ultimately had little impact on overall water quality.

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In 1985, for example, the program found just 27 percent of the Chesapeake Bay met water quality standards. By 2020, that figure had only risen to the mid-30 range, the report said.

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Maryland, along with Pennsylvania and Virginia, is not on track to meet pollution-reduction levels spelled out in a landmark 2010 agreement among the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Pennsylvania is the furthest behind its goals in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, a regional pact to reclaim the bay.

While many efforts were undertaken in tandem to clean the bay, the overarching tactics of the past decade zeroed in on large targets known as “point-source” polluters, trying to reduce pollution from single sources such as wastewater treatment plants, for example. Those efforts operated on the idea that an overall reduction in pollution would improve water quality.

Moore’s shift will instead focus more on pollution from diffuse sources, known as “nonpoint source” polluters, such as scores of small farms or deforested coast lines that add up to big pollution contributions.

Cleanup efforts have always tried to adopt both point-source and nonpoint source reductions, but the latter has been more slowly adopted. The May report suggested the shift in focus that on Thursday Moore said Maryland would undertake. “Maryland will become the first state in the nation to formally embrace” that approach, Moore said.

Maryland’s new strategy is multifaceted, but one element highlighted by state officials will focus on targeted restoration of shallow water habitat, where conservationists expect to get the most impact from cleaner water and where striped bass and crab nurseries could flourish.

Maryland, behind in cleaning up Chesapeake, beefs up restoration efforts

The state may also shift away from paying property owners to simply use best practices to reduce pollution flowing off their land into the waterway. Instead, property owners could need to demonstrate results, getting cash for effectively deploying those best practices. And adjacent land owners that work together to clean a single waterway, for example, could get higher priority for state and federal funding that Maryland doles out. Projects may also be reviewed for how they can leverage multiple funding sources and improve the industries dependent on the bay’s health, such as oyster farming.

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“We’re shifting how we work together, how we coordinate,” Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz said in an interview. “We’re building more of a holistic approach to how we do this.”

Part of that shift, Kurtz said, is enabled by better data that documents degraded places and analyzes how specific waterways could improve with targeted investments.

The more targeted and results-focused approach is still under development, and it will be laid out in detail by a new “Council on the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays Watershed” that Moore created by executive order Thursday. Kurtz said that council will set goals to measure whether the new strategy is working.

The shift follows also follows a report from the Office of the Inspector General for the Environmental Protection Agency, which said the EPA needs to shift its focus to better enforce goals and encourage states in the bay watershed to reduce pollution from nonpoint sources.

The EPA administrator who oversees most of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Adam Ortiz, attended Moore’s event and hailed the strategy shift.

“This is a critical time and a historic time. For the first time, we’re having the real resources and the dedication of effort commensurate to the challenge,” Ortiz said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in 40 years … there’s no question that we have a lot more to do.”

This story has been updated to reflect additional information from state officials on how the policy shift may be implemented.

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