Chesapeake Bay Watershed Falling Short On Clean Water Standards

Jan 29, 2016

An example of a forest buffer. Dairy farmers Matt and Debbie Hoff worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce runoff of nutrients and sediment on their New Windsor, Md. dairy farm, leading to cleaner water downstream.
Credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

Sediment and pollution still plague the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which supplies water for agricultural purposes in several states, including Pennsylvania.

That's why Pennsylvania environmental officials have announced plans to continue to clean the waterway.

“Pennsylvania’s falling short on its obligation, its federal obligation, to clean up the Chesapeake Bay,” said John Quigley, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “But more fundamentally than that, we have an obligation to our fellow citizens in Pennsylvania to restore local water quality.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved an updated Clean Water Plan in 2010, which required Pennsylvania to reduce sediment and pollution flowing into the waterway, to meet water quality standards by 2025.

In addition to Pennsylvania, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed supplies water to Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, New York and the District of Columbia.  

Environmental officials said the updated plan includes technical and financial assistance for farmers, better data gathering and coordination among departments, and the use of improved technology.

One step includes expanding forest buffers along waterways, which officials said would help decrease pollution. But officials said it’s still not enough.

“The scale of this problem is such that we need to invest about $358 million a year, according to a Penn State study, in the installation of on-the-ground best management practices. And we’re, at best, maybe doing a third of that,” said Quigley.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said in the past 30 years, improvements have been made. Since 1984, more than 434 million pounds of sediment (15 percent) was reduced. The waterway also saw a 25 percent reduction in phosphorus and 6 percent reduction in nitrogen – both are pollutants that can be harmful to the watershed’s ecosystem. But, state officials said they are poised to do more.

“The goal here is to raise the water quality and make sure that Pennsylvania receives the credit that we are due, for the conservation and water quality efforts that we are responsible for,” said Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture.   

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is the largest estuary in North America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It includes more than 150 rivers and streams. The Susquehanna River is the largest tributary in the watershed.