Topic: Chesapeake Bay TMDL
Date: August 11, 2009
Lena Kim: Hi. I'm Lena Kim of EPA's Mid-Atlantic region, and welcome to Environment Matters, our series of podcasts.
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Conditions in the Chesapeake Bay have changed quite a bit since Captain John Smith first sailed its pristine waters in the early 17th century. Back then, it's told, oysters were piled so high they would clang off the hulls of ships.
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Today, though, oyster reefs are no longer a navigation issue. In fact, their scarcity is part of a much larger concern as the nation's largest estuary continues to struggle in poor health.
Chesapeake Bay scientists know what the problem is – too much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pouring from the Bay's massive watershed that stretches from the Finger Lakes in New York to the southern reaches of Virginia – 64,000 square miles in all.
The pollutants damage conditions needed by thousands of fish, plant and animal species that make their home in the Chesapeake. The impaired waters also have a ripple effect on commerce and recreation throughout the region.
EPA is leading a major initiative to put the Bay and its watershed on a strict diet to get rid of those excess pounds of pollutants. That diet, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, will set the regimen needed for a clean Bay and will drive the actions necessary to get there.
Rich Batiuk, chief scientist at EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, says reducing nutrients and sediment is the key to restoring healthy conditions in the bay.
Rich Batiuk: That extra pollution diet, more than what the Chesapeake can sustain, causes low dissolved oxygen problems during the summer, where not only just in our deep waters but in our shallow waters fish, crabs, oysters don't have enough oxygen to breathe. That extra nutrient pollution causes algal blooms - little green floating organisms in the water column that discolor the water, block light from reaching our underwater grasses in our shallows and they also occasionally cause harmful algal blooms which can prevent folks from swimming or even enjoying kayaking, boating on the bay itself.
Lena Kim: Batiuk says sources of the pollution are well known - from farm fields to city streets.
Rich Batiuk: The biggest source right now is runoff coming from our agricultural lands. This includes over 6 million acres of agricultural lands out there, 88,000 farmers. Not that they are purposely doing this but just through their day-to-day operations; how they put fertilizer, their chicken operations, cows, dairy operations. Too much nutrient pollution, some sediment coming off of their lands and into local streams and rivers and into the Chesapeake. The second big source is actually coming from the air - back end of tailpipes from folks that are driving around the watershed as well as electric generating or power plants throughout the Midwest contribute about a quarter to a third of the nitrogen loads that end up in the Chesapeake. Next is when you and I flush our respective toilets or run a dishwasher it goes down into a sewer system and that contributes about 20 percent of the nitrogen and a similar amount of phosphorus pollution to the system. Couple of other sources that are not as large but are growing, one being stormwater runoff from our backyards, our neighborhoods, our city streets from tremendous, big parking lots, department stores, and another growing source is septic systems.
Lena Kim: Bob Koroncai manages the Bay TMDL for EPA. He says the pollution slim-down will be supported by state action plans and measures to ensure cleanup commitments and water quality goals are met.
Bob Koroncai: Once we identify what it'll take for a clean Bay – and we know we have a long way to go from where we are now to where we need to be – the states will prepare commitments showing how they'll meet their shares of the pollution diet. We have the scientific tools to help the states target their pollution reductions down to very specific areas and sources. EPA will monitor progress, work with the states in moving forward, and, if necessary, impose consequences to ensure needed actions are taken.
Lena Kim: Koroncai says the benefits of the TMDL will be felt far beyond the Bay itself.
Bob Koroncai: The actions under this TMDL will not only protect the Chesapeake Bay. They'll also help to clean up local rivers that support fishing and swimming, and often serve as a source of our drinking water. All 17 million people living in the watershed will have a role in helping us get this done. Basic actions like skipping lawn fertilizer, driving less, picking up after pets and planting native trees and shrubs will have a positive effect on our local waterways as well as the Bay.
Lena Kim: The TMDL is one of several unprecedented steps underway to restore the Chesapeake Bay, including an Executive Order signed by President Obama to marshal new federal action, and a series of two-year commitments by states to generate sustained progress. The Bay TMDL is scheduled to be completed in December 2010. There will be two rounds of public comment, including the first later this year.
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For more information on the Bay TMDL, visit our Web site at www.epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl . That's epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl - one word, all lower case. And thanks for joining us on Environment Matters, our series of podcasts.