Month: October 2015

Stormwater Fees to Be Reworked in Maryland’s Montgomery County

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Stormwater runoff carries nutrient and sediments from urban and suburban areas into our local streams and rivers, eventually making its way into the Chesapeake Bay. Local stormwater fees, or “rain taxes,” as they are sometimes called, help pay for infrastructure and programs that reduce urban and suburban runoff from municipalities in the Chesapeake Watershed. Stormwater fees have faced a lot of backlash in Maryland recently, especially in Montgomery County. The County has reworked stormwater fee legislation, after the law was successfully challenged in court by a local developer. (See here).

Introduced last Tuesday, the new stormwater fee law will face a public hearing next month. Reworking of the law redefines the stormwater runoff fee as an excise tax, which the county has the ability to collect. Hopefully this new version will pass without issue, as stormwater runoff fees are a necessary pollution reduction tool for urban and suburban areas in the Bay watershed.

Proposed Nutrient Trading Program in Maryland: Solution or Distraction?

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Is nutrient pollution trading in Maryland the answer to Bay cleanup or just another stalling mechanism? Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has proposed a new pollution trading system focused on nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. The system would allow communities, in need of upgrades to their local sewage treatment plants and stormwater runoff programs, to instead pay area farmers to pollute less. While this may result in fewer loads of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agricultural sources, (which is greatly needed), the plan allows urban and suburban communities to shift focus away from their own sources of pollution. The state should instead be focusing on a two-pronged approach, targeting pollution loads from agricultural and urban/suburban sources.

Agriculture is one of the leading sources of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, but it is not the only major source. Municipal and industrial wastewater (a sector that includes sewage treatment plants), contributes 19% of the nitrogen that reaches the Bay, and 21% of phosphorus; urban and suburban runoff contributes 31% of phosphorus pollution in the Bay (National Research Council, 2011). Just last week, The Washington Post reported on a Maryland-based water treatment plant, just north of Washington, D.C., that has been polluting millions of pounds of nutrients and chemicals into the Potomac River. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which runs the plant, from the outcome of a recent legal settlement, has agreed to make millions of dollars worth of upgrades to its outdated facility, (built in the 1960s). These upgrades are expensive, but they are long overdue, and are needed to improve water quality in the Potomac River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

Supporters of the proposed nutrient trading program in Maryland argue that nutrient trading will allow for cleanup of the Bay, while reducing costs to communities, which might have plants that need millions of dollars worth of upgrades, like the WSSC facility . However, I would argue that nutrient trading allows half of the pollution problem to be ignored. Maryland should target both agricultural runoff and urban and suburban sources of pollution if its leaders are serious about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

New Study on Climate Change Impact on Bay Finfish

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We hear a lot about how climate change will impact the Chesapeake Bay region, with sea level rise and increased rates of flooding affecting shoreline communities; and ocean acidification potentially harming oyster and blue crab populations. What about finfish species? The U.S. Geological Survery, USGS, has just released a report examining how climate change will affect coldwater fish species (such as the brook trout), native to the Bay watershed. The report relays estimates (through models) on how temperatures of specific streams and watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay region will be impacted with climate change. This new data should allow conservationists to ramp up efforts to protect coldwater fish ecosystems in threatened areas.

Brook trout, and other coldwater finfish species, which can be found in our watershed’s freshwater streams, are expected to suffer from climate change, and warming water temperatures. While previous studies have looked at the relationship between air and surface water temperature to predict future water temperatures of streams, the USGS set out to create more accurate models for climate change impacts on coldwater fish, by taking groundwater into account. Groundwater, especially in headwater streams, can have a major impact on overall stream temperatures. The USGS created models for specific streams throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, using groundwater and surface water temperatures, to predict changing water temperatures in the wake of climate change, and with this, the future health of the fish that rely on these streams.

The full report can be found here.

Oyster Season Takes Off in Maryland

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Oyster season began last Thursday, October 1, in Maryland. While a lot of oyster production in the Chesapeake Bay now takes place in cages with specially manufactured disease-resistant oysters, there are still watermen who dredge and dive from natural oyster reefs in the Bay. Watermen typically use hand and patent tonging to bring up oysters.

(For a visual on this process, check out this youtube video of Chesapeake watermen oyster tonging on the water. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRWGHgbCbHQ).

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources recently estimated that oyster harvests from tonging and diving will not be as high this year as in the past couple of years. According to DelmarvaNow, Maryland watermen hauled in 393,000 bushels of oysters last year, bringing in $17.3 million. This year’s harvest will likely be lower. The reason for the estimate of lower harvest levels this upcoming season is a decline in reproduction of oysters from 2013-2014. There are 1-2 years lag time between reproduction levels and harvest level responses, given the time it takes for oysters to mature. Reproduction levels were high in 2010-2012, contributing to high harvest levels the past two years.

However, despite recent storms keeping watermen off the water for a few days, good harvests are being reported so far, with bushel limits being reached every day, according to the Star Democrat, a newspaper produced in Easton, Maryland.

Tonging and diving for oysters can only take place at certain reefs in Maryland. The various restoration sites and oyster sanctuaries, overseen by organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (see map of CBF oyster reef sites here), are off limits to watermen. Even oyster reserve areas, which the DNR wanted to open to harvest, are off limits, after the Chesapeake Legal Alliance challenged the DNR’s proposal to open 10 reserve sites earlier this year.

Power- and sail-dredging for oysters will begin in November, and the oyster season will continue until March 31 of next year.

USDA Awards Four Bay States $1 Million Each for Cleanup Efforts

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Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Delaware are set to receive $1 million each from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of a federal effort to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Money will go toward farmers in the Bay watershed with stream access on their properties. Specifically, the money supports planting of vegetated streamside buffers on agricultural lands.

These vegetated streamside buffers, or riparian buffer zones, act as physical barriers to livestock, which might otherwise have direct access to pollute streams. Riparian buffer zones also reduce sediment and nutrient loads, running off from farmland, and entering the watershed.

The USDA is able to offer federal funds to Bay states under their Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). According to the USDA, CREP and USDA funds (about $500 million in total), supplied to Bay states since 1996, have resulted in the planting of 7000 miles of riparian buffer zones, and “have prevented an estimated eight million tons of sediment, 16 million pounds of nitrogen, and four million pounds of phosphorus from entering the waters of the watershed.” (See http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2015/10/0271.xml&contentidonly=true).

The USDA CREP program is voluntary. Funds are being offered to agricultural landowners who agree to participate in planting riparian buffer zones, and require financial support.

The $4 million going to Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Delaware is a first round of funding. A second round from the USDA will likely target Maryland and Pennsylvania- states with significant amounts of agricultural runoff to the Chesapeake Bay.