A River Geek’s Pick of One of the Great Reads from 2010
Hint: It’s a kind of diet book, but it’s about shedding pollution, not pounds.
A New Year’s resolution is something you normally make up yourself. And it’s just for a year — and often much less if it has to do with exercise or dieting.
But the Federal Environmental Protection Agency ushered out 2010 with a new spin on diet resolutions: It told Maryland and five other states and the District of Columbia that they must sharply cut the pollution going into their waterways by 2025.
It’s all spelled out in the 3,000+ pages of the report and annexes of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), and it has my vote for one of the great reads of 2010 and one of the best dieting books of all times. In terse but clear prose, it tells why each of the states must reduce their discharges of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment, and by how much.
The aim is to restore the Chesapeake Bay to something resembling its original condition, where fish and wildlife can thrive along with the people who depend on them for their livings or their enjoyment.
I know what you’re thinking: Anyone who would voluntarily read a lengthy government document (with annexes) must have lots of time because he doesn’t have any friends. Not true. My excuse is that I’m a river geek.
The TMDL is a great read because, first, it gives us a sweeping portrait of what’s going on with the bay and the rivers that empty into it. It shows why the health of the tributaries — of which the Potomac is the second largest — is so critical to restoring our nation’s greatest estuary.
Then it goes on to lay out what will be the most ambitious and difficult water cleanup in U.S. history. Bill Dennison, of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, put it in a nutshell: “Cleaning up the Bay isn’t rocket science,” he recently told me. “It’s a whole lot harder.”
Finally, this plan has teeth — no more backsliding. Beth McGee, Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist, recalls the bad old days.
“Before it was just, ‘Oh well, we missed the 2000 deadline; we’ll sign another agreement. And then, oh well, we missed the 2010 deadline,’” she said.
Now the EPA is saying, “You meet your goals, or we will challenge permits for treatment plants or farms, or prosecute polluters for violating the Clean Water Act.” So we’re finally getting serious.
It will take billions of dollars to upgrade sewage treatment plants and enforce cuts in runoff from farms, suburban lawns, streets, and parking lots. The TMDL demands reductions by 2025 of 25 percent for nitrogen, 24 percent for phosphorus and 20 percent for sediment. Sixty percent of the goals must be reached in just six years.
Our own Potomac is a major source of these pollutants: 22 percent of the nitrogen, 27 percent of the phosphorus and 32 percent of sediment.
This is important. But is it really a page turner? One of my favorite Edward Koren cartoons shows a couple walking down a beach (maybe on the Chesapeake?) with she saying to him, “I do think your problems are serious, Richard. They’re just not very interesting.”
The TMDL is interesting, though maybe not all 3,000 pages of it. In it we learn about how wastes from chicken and hog farms get into the river, and how menhaden (a kind of fish) and oysters filter them out.
It shows how global warming could increase precipitation that would wash more sediment into the rivers. But paradoxically, nitrogen and phosphorus levels would likely drop.
Buried in an annex, I discovered that there’s something called an “airshed.” It’s much bigger than the bay’s watershed that we terrestrials assume to be the source of all things going into rivers. But out of this airshed falls a third of the nitrogen that enters the bay. Culprits are power plants, trucks and cars and airplanes.
It might be a good read, but it’s not the end of the story. Will my neighbors stop over fertilizing their lawns? Will upriver farmers keep their chicken manure out of the streams? Will the state find the money to prevent sewage from washing through storm drains? Will we meet our deadlines? The next chapter is for us to write.