Chesapeake Bay conservationists talk Pa. pollution, EPA funding

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. (WHTM) — While Pennsylvania struggles to meet clean water goals, the fight to save the Chesapeake Bay is now pointing clearly at Washington, D.C.

Members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on Wednesday led an informational tour of the upper bay near Havre De Grace, Maryland. While pointing out the upstream influence of billions of gallons of fresh water entering the bay daily from Pennsylvania, educators used the murky water’s surface as a backdrop for a brewing political battle.

“The bay is getting better,” said BJ Small, spokesperson for the CBF’s Pennsylvania office in Harrisburg. “This is not the time to stop. This is not the time to slow down or actually reverse the progress that we’ve made. We need to have that Chesapeake Bay Program funded.”

Small is referring to the Trump administration’s proposed federal budget calling for a roughly 30-percent cut in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and elimination of up to $73 million in annual funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program. The program distributes federal dollars mostly through state grants to government agencies, non-profit groups like CBF, and four universities working toward bay health.

“All environmental issues are public health issues,” said Ian Robbins, captain of the Snow Goose and a CBF educator. “The bay directly affects our health as people, our physical well-being in terms of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food that we eat, and it also affects our wallets.”

Robbins steers the boat carefully through a shallow section at the head bay about 10 miles south of the Pennsylvania border.

“All of this water is coming from Pennsylvania and is being directly affected by the land use decisions there, whether it’s agriculture, forests or urban areas,” he said, “and with that water entering the system, you get a lot of sediment and a lot of nutrients.”

“The nitrogen and phosphorus, as it enters the rivers and streams, does multiple types of damage,” Small added. “The sediment coats the bottom and causes a problem by clouding the water. Phosphorus and nitrogen obviously get in the water and can create all types of [algae] blooms which consequently rob oxygen from wildlife. Aquatic life is not going to be able to survive.”

While a network of high-tech buoys within the bay can provide scientists with up-to-the-minute water quality information, a more primitive method of research can shed light on the health of fish and other aquatic life. Using a large weighted net, the crew of the Snow Goose performs a short trawl survey. After dragging the net along the bottom of the bay for several minutes, a quick retrieve results in several specimens, including channel catfish, white perch and a small bottom-dwelling flat fish known as a hogchoker.

“That is not something we see a lot of, so consider that a lucky one,” Robbins said.

Last year, CBF identified five central Pennsylvania counties as the state’s biggest polluters. Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, York and Lancaster counties all border the Susquehanna River or its tributaries within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and are each highly agricultural communities. While CBF points to several pollution sources affecting the bay – including urban and suburban stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment, and factories and air pollution – agricultural runoff has the most highly negative impact on water quality.

“We’ve decided that we should focus any new money and technical assistance in those areas and we will get the most bang for the buck,” Small said.

While Pennsylvania is currently falling behind goals set in the federal multi-state Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, CBF believes increasing anti-pollution efforts in those five worst counties can make a big difference. Among the programs that have proven successful for keeping agricultural fertilizers and chemicals on the land and out of the water is adding natural buffer zones of approximately 35 feet or more between farm fields and waterways.

As CBF looks at the prospect of losing federal funding, such projects could lose steam if it and other conservation groups are not able to find alternative dollars to assist farmers in implementing such best practices.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars directly coming from the activities around the Chesapeake Bay, whether its agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries or recreation,” Robbins said. “This is so important to our economy and our cultural identity. I am hopeful we can keep this recovery going.”

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