The Office of Management and Budget recently released proposed budget cuts to certain federal agencies for Fiscal Year 2018. Among these proposed cuts is a $68 million reduction in funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP), an EPA program office that partners with Bay states and agencies to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay.
The CBP oversees the Bay Watershed Agreement, and works with states to meet watershed cleanup goals laid out in this agreement by 2025. To meet 2025 goals, the CBP has been creating two-year work plans since the agreement was signed in 2014. These plans lay out specific objectives for fish and shellfish species, wetland and stream restoration, and submerged aquatic vegetation acreage; the plans address issues such as climate change, land use, and pollution.
Should the EPA have to cut funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program from $73 million to $5 million, Bay restoration will be largely left to the states (VA, MD, WV, PA, DE, NY and the District of Columbia). With eight years left in the Watershed Agreement **, and while the Bay still only meets a grade of C- (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “State of the Bay,” 2016), reductions in federal funding would risk state and District programs aimed at Bay restoration and conservation, and could setback achievements made under the Watershed Agreement thus far.
** The Watershed Agreement lays out watershed cleanup goals until 2025. I would like to stress that goals may not be met by 2025, and even after this date, watershed protection programs must be left in place in order to preserve any cleanup goals made.
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The City of Alexandria has an outdated wastewater management system.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.
I’ve been looking into which environmental bills and resolutions will be coming up at the 2017 Regular Session of the Virginia General Assembly. The state House and Senate will be meeting in exactly two weeks, on January 11. Several of the upcoming bills deal with water quality issues, as well as fisheries and habitat of tidal water. I’ll outline these proposed bills below, sorted via bill subject, and over the next few weeks, post updates on the states of these bills.
*Note: HB refers to House Bill followed by it’s number ID, SB refers to Senate Bill
Waters of the State, Ports, and Harbors
HB 1423/ SB 818: This bill addresses water quality in the Potomac River Watershed by designating the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to 1. identify point sources when combined sewer overflow outfalls occurs, discharging untreated wastewater into the Potomac River or its tributaries and 2. gives the DEQ the responsibility of following up with owners of these discharge facilities to come up with action plans to reduce combined sewer outfalls. By doing so, the state will be acting in compliance with the Clean Water Act and the EPA’s Combined Sewer Overflow Control Policy (owners of combined sewer overflow sites must be in full compliance with this federal regulation by July 1, 2027).
A combined sewer system is when wastewater and stormwater are carried to a water treatment facility using a combined system of piping (in a separate sewer system, only wastewater is treated; stormwater flows directly into nearby streams). During periods of heavy precipitation, combined sewer systems can easily be overtaxed, leading to overflows of untreated water into streams and rivers. To my knowledge, only three major cities in Virginia still have this combined system and of these, only the city of Alexandria falls within the Potomac River Watershed. Treatment centers in this area would be subject to HB 1423/ SB 818.
Therefore, related to this last bill is SB 819, which if passed, would require the City of Alexandria to assess discharges from its Combined Sewer Outfall Number 001 (which discharges into the Potomac River) by January 2029. The City of Alexandria would have to submit this assessment to the State Water Control Board, and include an outline of actions and control technologies that must be adopted to prevent overflow discharges to the Potomac River.
HB 1454 would designate a stretch of the James River as part of the Virginia Scenic Rivers System. When the General Assembly designates a river, or sections of a river, as part of the Scenic Rivers System, it means it possesses “superior natural and scenic beauty, fish and wildlife, and historic, recreational, geologic, cultural, and other assets” (Code of Virginia, 10.1-400 Definitions). From my research, I cannot tell that this offers any kind of direct additional protection of these waters or habitats, but the designation may be important for outside conservation efforts.
Water and Sewer Systems
HB 1460 addresses the regulation of private wells, and would allow Stafford County to set standards for the construction or abandonment of private wells. Stafford County would join a growing list of state counties already able to set stronger regulations for their private wells. While this is primarily a public health issue, abandoned wells can impact groundwater, which eventually seeps into bodies of water.
Fisheries and Habitat of Tidal Waters
SB 820 would impact the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s (VMRC) management of the menhaden industry. The bill would require the VMRC to implement the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden and adopt regulations to manage the industry.
Atlantic menhaden can be found along the North American coast, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. As these fish are used for a variety of purposes, they have a long history of being overfished. Menhaden are used as bait for other fisheries (including the crabbing industry), and for fish meal and the production of fish oil. Protecting the stock of menhaden in Virginia protects a number of fishery-related industries.
By Libby Warner
On our visit to Antipoison Creek, we met with a fisherman who spoke somewhat highly of catch share programs. Afterwards, I investigated the purpose of catch share programs as well as the pros and cons of their implementation.
Catch share programs were originally developed in the United States to promote the economic and environmental stability of fisheries. In 1976, the federal government officially acknowledged that overfishing was a national issue and passed the Magnuson Steven’s Act. This created regional councils to manage fishing practices in different parts of the country. The act was first amended in 1996 with the Sustainable Fisheries Act. This amendment limited fisheries to only fishing during certain times of the year, a method referred to as derby fishing. Fishermen would fish as much as they could during the limited time frame, which resulted in increases in overfishing, illegal poaching, and competition and conflict between recreational and commercial fishermen. There were also several negative economic impacts associated with derby fishing. In 2006, the Magnuson Steven’s Act was amended with the Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, which installed various catch share programs throughout the country.
In regions with catch share programs, including the Chesapeake Bay, a total maximum number of allowable catch is instated per annum for a particular species of fish. Individual fishermen and companies are then assigned a TAC, or total allowable catch, a quota based on the number of fish each company caught in the past. Many question the fairness of quotas decided in this fashion. However, the incentive of catch share programs is to limit the amount of fish caught overall rather than limiting the time of year fish can be caught.
In addition to limiting total catch, there are a number of benefits associated with catch share programs. For instance, since the implementation of catch share programs, the Chesapeake Bay, along with other bodies of water throughout the country, have seen a decrease in the number of discards and ghost fish, (fish that get caught in equipment and either die or are lost). There have also been improvements in fishermen safety. During the derby fishing days, fishing was one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Due to time constraints, fishermen would rush out to catch fish despite poor weather conditions. With the removal of time constraints, catch share programs have provided more full-time jobs, rather than part-time jobs as fishermen now have a year-round season.
Another benefit of catch share fishing is that it increases the quality of fish caught. Since companies own portions of fish stock, they are often more invested in taking care of their stock. Being free to fish any time of year results in fishermen focusing on quality rather than quantity of fish caught. This is especially beneficial for the health of local people who rely on fish as a primary source of protein.
Whether or not catch share programs have actually made fishing more environmentally sustainable is still up for debate. Many argue that proof of success includes rebounds of fish populations across the country, including blue king crab, snow crab, Pacific coast widow rockfish, Atlantic windowpane flounder, and Gulf of Mexico red snapper. While the government has been able to increase total catch limits over time, showing proof of sustainability, many also argue that it is difficult to determine whether or not the rebounds in fish populations are a direct result of catch share programs. Many environmental activists are opposed to catch shares because it is essentially a privatization of public resources. Fishing companies are allowed to trade or sell quota, which results in armchair fishermen, (large fishing companies who sell quota to smaller companies and receive a portion of the profit). Large companies are now more capable of taking over the industry and owning most of the shares. Grassroots environmental activists use the phrase “corporate industrialization of fisheries” to describe the large fishing companies that are becoming monopolies in the fishing world. This is potentially problematic because large corporations in a capitalist society do not always rank environmental interests as a priority. Additionally, although catch share programs have resulted in a shift from part-time jobs to full-time jobs, overall, the monopoly aspect of catch shares has decreased the total number of jobs available.
Catch share programs approach conservation by focusing on individual species of fish rather than looking at aquatic ecosystems as a whole. Many environmental activists argue that the real issue is that, worldwide, there are currently approximately five times as many boats fishing as would be needed to catch a sustainable number of fish. With the implementation of catch share programs, fishermen often respond by simply moving to other parts of the world. Therefore, the total number of fish caught worldwide may not be reduced.
Catch shares are just as controversial in the Chesapeake Bay. Ten years ago, Virginia installed a catch share program in the Bay for striped bass, a population that had been overfished. After the catch share implementation, Virgina has been able to sustainably manage the striped bass population. To implement this program, NOAA provided educational sessions for striped bass fishermen to learn about catch shares and aided fishermen in the transition process from derby fishing to catch share fishing. From an original catch season of three months, the government extended the harvest period for striped bass to eleven months. The Virginia program has also allowed fisheries to be more economically successful.
Another positive result of catch share programs in Virginia is the development of “Chesapeake Catch.” Chesapeake Catch is a smartphone application developed for fishermen in the Bay, allowing them to log their catch and view data regarding other fish caught in the Bay. This has been a successful way for fishermen to come together and communicate within the industry.
Maryland took longer to implement the catch share program for striped bass; a total allowable catch was not instituted until 2014. Catch shares in both Maryland and Virginia have received criticism for putting small fishermen out of business. Throughout the Bay region, many fishermen, particularly smaller family businesses, complain that catch shares have changed their traditional fishing techniques, and allowed larger fishing corporations to control the small companies.
With striped bass being Maryland’s state fish and it’s third most valuable seafood industry, the catch share program implementation for striped bass in Maryland is very significant. Despite the complaints, since the program began, striped bass populations have improved and overfishing has declined in both Maryland and Virginia.
After exploring the different stances people take toward catch shares, and examining the pros and cons of this fishing technique, I have come to the conclusion that overfishing is an extremely complicated issue with no simple solution. It is still relatively unclear whether or not these programs are environmentally sustainable on a global scale. Catch share programs, however, seem to be effective in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Although there are may be short-term economic downsides to catch shares, there have been ecological benefits in the Chesapeake region.
Phosphorus Levels on Maryland Farmland Lower Than Expected, Still a Significant Risk to Bay Water Quality
The Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) released a report earlier this month on soil phosphorus levels on state farmland from the second half of 2015. The MDA found that 18% of Maryland’s farmland has soils oversaturated with phosphorus. While this percentage is not as high as was expected,** this is still a significant amount of state land contributing to phosphorus pollution in local waters- this is one out of every five acres of farmland statewide; and two out of three acres on the Eastern Shore, according to the Bay Journal (Wheeler, 2016).
Phosphorus pollution from agricultural fields is a major issue in Maryland, given the high number of poultry farms and poultry manure that is applied as fertilizer to nearby fields. When over-applied to farmland, fertilizer high in phosphorous (which poultry manure is), runs off into local waterways, and pollutes the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Last year’s update to the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT), and the 2016 Poultry Litter Management Act, which has yet to be voted on in the state General Assembly, are Maryland’s regulatory attempts to solve this pollution issue. These regulations would transport phosphorus-laden fertilizer to farmland elsewhere in the state where phosphorus levels are low. The MDA report stated that 82% of farm fields have lower phosphorus levels, excluding these fields from the PMT regulation- meaning these farms will be allowed to continue to apply fertilizer as usual.
The 18% of fields found to have oversaturated soils (high in phosphorus) will be subject to PMT regulations. This targets farmland on the Eastern Shore- two thirds of farmland on the Eastern Shore will be subject to PMT restrictions- and the Lower Eastern Shore in particular, where 11% of farmland is subject to restrictions on phosphorus fertilizers altogether (Maryland Department of Agriculture, 2016).
**Keep in mind that the report gets its data from samples taken on state farmlands, and data is incomplete. The document does not account for 30% of state soils due to a lack of reporting. Half of missing data comes from the Eastern Shore- the portion of Maryland where poultry production is highest, and soil phosphorus levels are of the biggest concern.
Great news for the Bay today! The Supreme Court has decided not to hear the Clean Water Blueprint case, brought forward by the American Farm Bureau (AFB) and its allies. The AFB challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) right to enforce the Clean Water Blueprint, which sets Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs; includes limits on pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment) in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The AFB has twice appealed lower court decisions upholding the EPA’s authority to enforce the Clean Water Blueprint among Bay states and the District of Columbia.
Bay states and the District have created their own Watershed Implementation Plans, setting restoration and milestone goals within their respective boundaries. These plans will continue to be enforced, as the most recent ruling from the lower court stands. The EPA’s authority to oversee Bay restoration under the Clean Water Act has been upheld.
Many of the AFB’s partners in this case came from organizations and states outside of the Bay watershed. While this case does not immediately impact the challengers to the Clean Water Blueprint, it is believed that the EPA’s role in restoring water quality in the Chesapeake Bay could set precedent in other watersheds across the country.
The Poultry Litter Management Act, which shifts the burden of storage and transport of poultry manure from contract growers to the chicken industry (companies like Purdue, and Tyson Foods), was heard in the Maryland House and Senate this week. Senate Bill 496 was heard Tuesday afternoon (2/23), and House Bill 599 was heard on Wednesday (2/24).
In addition to shifting the responsibility of manure storage and transport from farmer to the poultry industry, these companies must work with their contract farmers to create nutrient management plans, to determine how much manure may be kept on surrounding agricultural fields as fertilizer. These nutrient management plans are to be completed before a contract grower is provided poultry.
If a farmer has too much manure, the poultry company (referred to as the integrator in the Bills) must ensure the contract grower is able to properly store the manure, until the manure can be transported to an appropriate location. Transport will be paid for by the poultry company, and not by the farmer or by taxpayer dollars (as transport is currently subsidized in part by the state of Maryland).
While the Act will shift burden of responsibility away from individual growers, there has been some backlash from agricultural groups in Maryland. A major complaint is that the Act gives poultry companies expanded powers over independent farmers, and takes away a farmer’s right to sell excess manure as fertilizer. Some fear that taking away the loss of the current cost-share system of poultry transport will create financial losses for contract growers.
Benefits, however, include expected improvements to water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Over-application of manure in Maryland, and particularly on the Eastern Shore, results in tons of phosphorus runoff polluting local tributaries, and the greater estuary. Ensuring poultry manure transport to areas where fields are not inundated with phosphorus should reduce runoff and pollution issues in Maryland and in the overall watershed.
The Act is set to be implemented in October 2016, dependent on its passing in the House and Senate. While the Bills were heard, the Act has yet to be voted on. Updates to follow.