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Cleaning the Chesapeake Bay: A Water Quality Engineer’s Call to Action

In response to various pressures to protect America’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, federal and local governments have sponsored restoration efforts since the 1980s. Yet today, initiatives to clean up the Chesapeake Bay are still falling short of pollutant reduction targets. Finding lasting, implementable solutions to improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay presents an important—and exciting—challenge for the engineering community.

Establishing a TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay

A crucial part of the cleanup effort has been controlling the pollutants that enter the Bay. The Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) component of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 sets the maximum load of pollutants that can be released into a waterway while maintaining a healthy ecosystem and remaining “fishable and swimmable” for humans. Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4)—from which polluted stormwater runoff is commonly discharged into local water bodies—have an obligation to reduce the pollutants in stormwater runoff to TMDL-established healthy levels. Other contributors, like wastewater treatment plants and farm owners, are also reducing their pollutant loads.

Individual MS4s are regulated by the state where they are located. The Chesapeake Bay, however, receives stormwater runoff from six states (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia.

To establish a multi-state response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked with these entities to establish a Bay-wide TMDL to address high nutrient and sediment loads. On December 29, 2010, the EPA and the Bay program partners established a plan to install regulations and stormwater controls that can meet the Bay TMDL by 2025. The states have pushed the requirements down to their local MS4s, which include counties, cities, federal facilities, and universities.

Progress to date

According to the EPA, the Bay progressed slightly in 2011, 2012, and 2013 towards meeting the Bay TMDL but slipped in 2014. Therefore, the program has a steep hill to climb to meet the 2015 pollutant reduction targets. So what happened? Why is the TMDL so hard to meet, and why are there good years and bad years? Several factors help to answer these questions:

Wastewater treatment plants: As discussed in an earlier blog, the Clean Water Act has brought about significant water quality improvements through requirements for industry to control pollutants from wastewater and stormwater discharges. To comply with Clean Water Act requirements, wastewater treatment plants continue to install state-of-the-art technologies, at great expense, to reduce the pollutants they release into our natural waterways. This accounts for some of the progress toward meeting the Bay-wide TMDL targets.

Stormwater control: The Bay area stormwater management communities have also been passing regulations and embarking on needed planning to install stormwater controls on a large scale. However, stormwater quality control effectiveness is estimated but not certain, which compounds the planning process. For example, an EPA guidance workgroup found that one control favored by MS4s, stream restoration, was less effective than they thought just 2 years ago.

Nature also influences success, as rain fluctuations can increase or decrease the pollutants that reach the Bay in any given year.

Timeline and funding considerations: Maryland has required their larger MS4s to meet the Bay TMDL by 2025, but has not yet set a deadline for small MS4s. Based on when the EPA approved Virginia’s MS4 permits, Virginia communities have somewhere between 2025 and 2029 or later to comply.

Meanwhile, large counties, Baltimore City, and DC could need funding of $1 billion or more over the 15-year timespan. And some organizations believe that the engineering design and stormwater construction industries do not have the capacity to install all of the necessary controls during this timespan, even with the necessary funding.

The engineering community’s role

What can the engineering community do to help our MS4 partners protect the Chesapeake Bay? EBA is helping our partners understand federal, state, and local regulations and design requirements. Our staff members also help our partners identify funding requirements and sources, such as grants, general funds, stormwater utilities, and bonds.

And equally important is the need to help them develop stormwater planning, design, construction, and maintenance programs that can implement the Bay TMDL rapidly using innovative management tools, such as design/build/maintain contracts, public-private partnerships (see Prince George’s County’s Clean Water Program), monitoring programs, and adaptive management feedback loops.

Local stormwater communities have never needed trusted engineering partners more, and engineers and contractors should relish the opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of our diverse skills to help. It is a fun time to be a civil engineer with water quality expertise!

To learn more about EBA’s water resource capabilities, contact Harish Patel at 410.504.6101 or harish.patel@ebaengineering.com.

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Harish Patel
HarishPatel@gmail.com