20 Questions about the Bay’s New Cleanup Plan

of headlines lately about how we’re finally going to start cleaning up Chesapeake Bay. Most feature the non-word TMDL.

Q: What is this TMDL thing that everyone keeps talking about?

A: TMDL stands for Total Maximum Daily Load. It’s a fancy phrase for measuring and establishing limits on what’s polluting the Bay, specifically nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment. The primary sources of nitrogen and phosphorous are sewage treatment plants, farms and stormwater runoff. 

The Environmental Protection Agency explains TMDL as “the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water may receive and still meet its water quality standards, with a margin of safety. Pollutants are anything that prevents a water body from attaining the national goal of being ‘fishable and swimmable’.”


Local Category 5 Waterways

LITTLE PATUXENT RIVER: Suspended solids, phosphorous, cadmium, zinc, unknown pollutants

MAGOTHY RIVER: Nitrogen, suspended solids, phosphorous, PCBs in fish, contaminated sediments, low fish and mud critter numbers, unknown pollutants

PATUXENT RIVER: Nitrogen, suspended solids, phosphorous, PCBs in fish, contaminated sediments, low fish and mud critter numbers, fecal coliform, cadmium, mercury, atmospheric deposition, unknown pollutants

RHODE RIVER: Nitrogen, phosphorous, unknown pollutants

SEVERN RIVER: Nitrogen, phosphorous, PCBs in fish, low fish and mud critter numbers, fecal coliform, unknown pollutants

SOUTH RIVER: Nitrogen, suspended solids, phosphorous, PCBs in fish, contaminated sediments, low fish and mud critter numbers, unknown pollutants

WEST RIVER: Nitrogen, suspended solids, phosphorous, PCBs in fish, contaminated sediments, low fish and mud critter numbers, unknown pollutants

Q: Why nitrogen and phosphorous?

A: These are the two ingredients that most contribute to dead zones.

Q: What is a dead zone?

A: That’s where the water column contains no oxygen, killing any animals within its depths.

Q: How do nitrogen and phosphorous create dead zones?

A: They speed up the growth of algae on the surface of the water. This algae lives a fast life, then sinks to the bottom where it eats up all of the oxygen as it decomposes.

Q: Who’s responsible for reducing nitrogen and phosphorous?

A: All local governments in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Every city and county from upstate New York to Virginia Beach, as far west as the Appalachian Mountains and east almost to the Atlantic Ocean.

Q: Who is in charge of making sure this program is successful?

A: The federal government, under the EPA, is responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act — and for holding the feet of local government to the fire.

Q: What is a watershed?

A: A land area that drains into a body of water. For example, the Severn River watershed runs from near Fort Meade in the west to Ritchie Highway in the north and Generals Highway and Forest Drive in the south.

Q: What is a watershed diet?

A: The Bay states have been working with the feds for the past few years, taking water samples in every river and major tributary throughout the watershed to measure the amount of dissolved oxygen, pollutants like heavy metals and sediment contamination. Next came fish surveys. If fish numbers and dissolved oxygen levels are down, and if chemical pollution levels exceed healthy limits, that combination puts a river on the list of impaired waters.

When a river is listed as an impaired waterway, the local government responsible for land use within that watershed will be put on a nitrogen and phosphorous diet. In current draft form, the dietary total daily maximum load cuts nitrogen and phosphorus by 25 percent and sediment by at least 16 percent.

Q: How long will the diet last?

A: Pollution control measures to fully restore the Bay will be in place by 2025, with 60 percent of the actions completed by 2017. 

Q: How do the regulators determine each waterway’s diet?

A: Waterway by waterway, they use scientific data, like water samples and computer models, to determine how much the nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment levels must be reduced to sustain healthy conditions.

Q: What is an impaired waterway?

A: The federal government rates all rivers on a one to five scale. Categories one through three mean the river is healthy or there is no data to assume otherwise. Category 4 means the river is unhealthy for certain uses, like swimming, but not so bad as to need a TMDL. Category 5 means the water is unsanitary and contaminated with harmful levels of pollutants. Category 5 waterways go on a TMDL diet. 

Q: When will the federal government put local governments on their diets?

A: The EPA draft plan was reviewed in December, with the final version completed on New Year’s Eve. In June of 2011, the states will submit their Phase II cleanup plans to the feds for approval. Final plans will be approved in November.

Q: Why is this happening now?

A: After environmental groups sued the EPA for not enforcing the Clean Water Act, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order for the Chesapeake. The May 2009 Order required EPA to come up with a scientifically based restoration plan for the Bay.

Q: What is this going to cost?

A: It will ultimately cost billions of dollars to clean up Chesapeake Bay. As a good-faith gesture, the president has proposed $491 million for the Bay in fiscal year 2011. If Congress approves the funding, it would be divided among all six Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia.

Q: How is all this going to work?

A: It will be very challenging to engage over 3,000 different local governments in this monumental task. Each state has its own way of doing business. In Pennsylvania, townships call the shots. In Maryland, counties rule and towns take a back seat. In Virginia, you can’t do anything without approval from the state legislature. And in D.C., it’s often hard to know who’s in charge.

Q: What happens if a local government doesn’t stick to its diet?

A: The feds could deny sewage discharge permits, which would stop all further development.

Q: So what will all of this mean to the average person living in Anne Arundel or Calvert county? 

A: No one has the slightest idea.