Month: January 2017
This past Saturday, I joined the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. While I marched for a number of social justice issues, one of my primary concerns in today’s world is climate change, and the preservation of the scientific community. Since this is a blog dedicated to the Chesapeake Bay, I would like to remind readers of the threats climate change pose to the Bay and the greater watershed.
Sea Level Rise:
Sea level rise is one of the most well known impacts associated with climate change. The most recent projection from climate scientists (March 2016), foresee global waters rising by two meters, or over six feet, by 2100. Sea level rise is already having severe impacts in the region, particularly on Smith and Tangier Islands in the Chesapeake. I visited both islands in 2011, and saw – more noticeably on Smith Island- major portions of the island inundated with water. Although sea barriers can delay impacts, waters are rising on the islands by about 2 feet each year. It is estimated that Smith Island will be completely underwater by the end of the century.
Sea level rise is especially potent in this region due to the natural sinking of land at the southernmost part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. We’re seeing the biggest impact on our islands, but coastal towns and cities are facing sea level rise as well. Because of climate change and land subsidence, the Hampton Roads area for instance, is “experiencing the highest rates of sea level rise along the entire U.S. East Coast,” (WRI, 2014).
Coastal Flooding & Shoreline Erosion:
Related to sea level rise are the issues of coastal flooding and shoreline erosion. Sea level rise contributes to shoreline erosion and leads to an increase in flooding incidents. Cities in Southeast Virginia will be especially vulnerable to increased coastal flooding events (VIMS, 2012). Cities further north in the watershed are seeing a rise in coastal flooding events too. Annapolis reports that floods occur ten times as often as they did in the 1950s (CBP, 2016).
Miles of coastline along the southern Chesapeake region have been eroded; sea level rise may be playing a part (see former post here on Dameron Marsh and Hughlett Point).
Ocean acidification is the acidifying of marine waters as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. It is unclear how much of the Bay watershed will be impacted by acidification, however acidification could impact several species in the Bay. Shellfish make their shells out of calcium carbonate. As waters absorb CO2, and water chemistries change, certain shellfish face difficulties building their shell. This is true for the Eastern oyster found in the Chesapeake Bay, whose shells would become more brittle in acidified waters, and leave them more vulnerable to other threats.
Oysters are making a major comeback in Virginia, but the oyster farms and the restaurants that have emerged around this industry in recent years would face the biggest economic losses if and when Bay waters become more acidic.
Scientists are still studying how ocean acidification will impact the blue crab population in the bay (studies are being undertaken at institutions like UMCES). Crabs form their shells differently than oysters, and acidification may actually strengthen the shells of blue crabs. However, a researcher at UMCES has found that juvenile crabs grow more slowly in acidic waters. Given that juvenile crabs are threatened by other environmental issues in the Bay- such as the loss of seagrass habitat- ocean acidification could play a part in reducing blue crab population numbers.
Temperatures of regional bodies of water have been rising in correlation with rising air temperatures. Over the past 50 years, stream temperatures in all six Bay states (NY, WV, DE, MD, PA and VA) and in Washington, D.C. have risen by an average of 1.2 degrees F and up to 2.2 degrees F (CBP, 2016; EPA, 2016). This may not seem like a major increase to us, but it can be to marine species. Warming waters – even seemingly small increases in temperature- can contribute to dead zones and algal blooms. Cold-water fish species are more likely to be displaced by fish that thrive in warmer waters. Warmer waters can also impact fish and plant growth and reproduction.
Scientific studies – including data collection and modeling- play a crucial role in understanding how our climate is changing, and how our environment and wildlife will respond to these changes, both in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and beyond. We must continue to support the collection of data and dissemination of scientific reports on our environment.
Late last month I put together a list of environmental bills that were going to come up in the Virginia General Assembly for the 2017 session. I would like to go into more detail on the bills related to Alexandria’s combined sewer system, and provide you with some updates on those bills.
The City of Alexandria has an outdated wastewater management system. Their combined sewer system, which collects both wastewater and stormwater for treatment at Alexandria Renew, is prone to overflow events during periods of heavy rainfall. Overflows discharge millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River- up to 70 million gallons per year, according to the Potomac Riverkeepers. Raw sewage discharged into the Potomac River negatively impacts water quality and wildlife; causes major public health risks; and exacerbates nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay- a watershed that the state of Virginia has pledged to clean up, through the EPA-mandated Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
Two of the original bills in the 2017 legislative session -House Bill 1423 and Senate Bill 819- targeted discharges from the City of Alexandria’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) system.
House Bill 1423, was first referred to the Committee on Commerce and Labor, has since been referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources (on 1/19). This bill calls for the Department of Environmental Quality to identify CSO outfalls that discharge into the Potomac River and lay out actions to bring these outfalls into compliance with federal and state laws by July 1, 2027. This bill would directly target Alexandria’s CSO Outfall Site 001.
Senate Bill (SB) 819, introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin (who represents part of Alexandria) called for the City to complete an assessment of needed system improvements and discharges from Alexandria Renew’s outfall sites to the Potomac River watershed by January 1, 2029. Failure to do so would cause the State Water Control Board to hold off on renewing the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for this wastewater facility. This bill was stricken from the docket of the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Natural Resources on January 12, before it could reach the Senate floor.
Senate Bill 819 seems to have been scrapped in favor of stronger regulation. On January 12, the same committee that killed SB 819 introduced a new bill, which would require the City of Alexandria to eliminate all discharges of sewer into the Potomac River watershed by July 1, 2020, with severe financial penalties enacted for failure to comply. The committee ultimately adopted a substitute (on 1/19) to bring to the Senate floor, lengthening this timeline to 2025.
The City of Alexandria needs to update and reconfigure its combined sewer system to eliminate overflow events, and it needs to do so sooner than the timelines laid out in the recent House and Senate bills if Alexandria is serious about improving water quality and decreasing public health risks. The City of Alexandria released their Long Term Control Plan Update late last year which lays out how they will deal with this issue, but the timeline for this plan is also too long. Many of the proposed fixes would not be fully implemented for at least another 15 years. The DEQ still needs to approve this plan and the City must finalize funding. The Long Term Control Plan Update is several steps away from being put into motion.
The first wastewater treatment facility in the City of Alexandria was constructed in 1956; a combined sewer system existed long before that. This discharge issue is one that has been occurring for decades. It is time to eliminate all discharges of raw sewage to the Potomac River.