Save the Bay… Incrementally

Image credit: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

The health of the Chesapeake Bay continues to improve but is still “dangerously out of balance,” declared the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CFB)  in its 2014 State of the Bay report. The goods news is that bay waters were notably cleaner and the oyster population rebounded last year. The bad news is that algae blooms, deoxygenation of the water and sunlight-blocking sediment were still big problems. Losses in the blue crab and rockfish populations were particularly disheartening.

Overall, I think society has struck the right balance toward saving the bay. The fact is, Virginia faces many challenges and scarce resources to devote to them. We cannot afford to spend as much money fixing the bay as the job requires. On the other hand, we can’t let our commitment slip. The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and we must restore it. The course we’ve chosen — slowly but steadily ratcheting up standards to reduce pollution and foster the recovery of key species over time — seems appropriate.

The imposition of new storm water regulations in 2014 means that Virginians will continue to pay more in the years ahead, although much of the expense may be hidden in the cost of real estate development/redevelopment. What strikes me is that different methods of reducing nitrogen pollution vary so markedly in the cost per pound. Restoring or constructing wetlands costs $1.50 per pound of nitrogen pollution reduced, according to the CFB graphic above, while stormwater retrofits to hard infrastructure can cost up to $200 per pound saved.

Surely, there must be some way politically to channel more effort into wetlands construction ($1.50 per pound), creating vegetative buffers to farmlands ($3.20 per pound), implementing conservation tillage ($3.20 per pound) and planting cover crops ($4.70 per pound) rather than paying for massively expensive stormwater retrofits. Go for the low-hanging fruit first. Only if that doesn’t do the job, move up the scale to increasingly expensive solutions.


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20 responses to “Save the Bay… Incrementally”

  1. I still think without real-time monitoring – we don’t really know what rivers and rivers sections need priority.

    what we surely cannot afford is a one-size-fits-all shotgun approach.

    real time nitrogen monitoring is a reality. The equipment exists and can transmit real time nutrient data where ever the equipment is located.

    “Real-time Monitoring Pays Off for Tracking Nitrate Pulse in Mississippi River Basin to the Gulf of Mexico”

    The rub is that it’s expensive – but surely it can’t be more expensive than say – requiring a farmer or a municipality to installed thousands of dollars of mitigation on sections of rivers that really don’t need it.

    and it’ s just as bad to back up on spending – across the board – instead of prioritizing where the problems really do need to be addressed …

    we need to be smarter about this. One size fits all does not work well – for ANY amount of money – whether it’s a bunch or a lot less.. it’s still dumb.

  2. The implied assumption in your thinking is that there are equal pounds of nitrogen available to be saved from each approach.

    If you are in a car accident and suffer a gash in your leg and a cut on your finger you might be losing 1/10 of a l of blood per hour from the finger and 1 l of blood per hour from the leg. A band aid costs a dime and the operation to close your leg wound costs $1,000. What do you do? Save money with the band aid while you bleed out from the leg?

    From the 2014 State of the Bay report, “With the watershed’s ever-growing population pollution from urban and suburban runoff has become the only major source of nitrogen pollution in the Bay still growing.”

    Once again I am stumped by Mr. Bacon. He goes on and on about how people should pay the full costs of their lifestyle choices – especially when it comes to transportation. But when the people who live and work near the bay want the residents of Henrico County to pay for the mess they make with poorly engineered runoff management it’s too expensive.

    1. re: ” But when the people who live and work near the bay want the residents of Henrico County to pay for the mess they make with poorly engineered runoff management it’s too expensive.”

      but it’s perfectly consistent with his other views toward the environment subsidizing people’s lifestyles!

      why are you surprised?

      Jim argues that coal plants should be allowed to continue to pollute because otherwise folks will have to “conserve” – like live in smaller houses or use less electricity, etc..

      which is all the more ironic these days – when you look at the related family of conservative – i.e. conservation, “to conserve”.


    2. You and Larry are both way over-reacting here. I’m saying that we should go after the low-hanging fruit. If doing the cheap, easy stuff doesn’t do the job (which it probably doesn’t), then we have to move to the more expensive stuff. I’ve written in the past about the necessity of applying BMPs to urban/stormwater management and even doing expensive retrofits. I’m not backing off from that position.

      The problem, as I see it, is that we’re committed to doing the expensive stormwater management stuff without really going aggressively after the low-hanging fruit.

      1. how do we know what the “low hanging fruit” are?

        I do not think we know and I think the game is one of prioritizing limited resources to do the most good.

        how do we know what the best bang for the buck is if we don’t know the geography of the most pollution?

        1. Look at the CFB graphic and tell me if you can spot any nitrogen-reducing strategies that look more cost effective than others. I base my remarks solely upon the CFB data.

          1. there ARE cost-effective nitrogen reducing strategies but if you apply them everywhere instead of targeting and prioritizing – you’re STILL wasting resources and in doing that – you actually are wasting money and delaying effective strategies.

            Like we have with acid rain and mercury deposition – we have to accurately characterize the worst affected areas FIRST – if we are limited in our resources – and we are.

            as you have often said – we want to get the most bang for the buck – and that means addressing the most severely impacted areas as a priority.

            there are parts of the James where nutrients are not the problem they are in other parts of the James but if you insist in implementing the same strategies in both places – you are wasting resources especially if you could get twice the benefit by focusing twice the resource on one area and none on the other area.

            we are going to find – if we every get around to it – that some places are much, much worse than others.. basically the same way other pollution is.

            TMDL is an attempt to classify the “safe load” for each pollutant in a river – it’s a better approach than the NDPES which assumes the receiving stream is the same no matter where the pipe is and we know that fails.

            but the problem with TMDL is that it gets down to allocations but allocations without regard to the condition of the receiving location make no sense either.. In a highly polluted area – the same allocation as for an area of little or no pollution makes no sense. The allocation should be keyed to the existing condition of the receiving stream..

            and in fact, that’s the way they are approaching storm water now so in places like NoVa with a lot of impervious surfaces – the existing condition of the receiving stream is dictating tighter requirements.

            we should have every river and many, many segments on each river – instrumented so we can generate a map of Virginia showing the nutrient levels in all the rivers…in segments for each river.. Once we do that, we’ll know if, for instance, farmers in a certain segment, actually have to take some actions to reduce nutrients… and it will be much easier to justify those actions if you can actually show the condition of the river.

            telling a farmer that a computer model says he must spend 10’s of thousands of dollars on land he can barely pay the taxes on – is not going to work.

          2. I totally agree that we should be doing a better job of monitoring our rivers, creeks, streams and other waterways in order to generate data that will allow us to allocate resources most cost effectively. The good news is that the cost of installing and monitoring water-quality sensors is dropping dramatically. Indeed, the cost has become so low that comprehensive water quality data easily could be crowd-sourced. It’s just a matter of someone stepping forward and saying, “Let’s do it!”

          3. I think KNOWING where the nutrient problems are the worst is paramount to a cost effective strategy. Without that knowledge, our strategy will waste millions of dollars and still not clean up the bay.

            it’s imperative that we have good data.

  3. One of the questions with created wetlands is whether they are functional wetlands with a thriving ecosystem or merely an impoundment of water. Maintaining a wet/dry pulse is essential to the health and positive function of natural and created wetlands.

    Scientists at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum studied four experimental wetlands and found a ponded wetland with cattails can lead to the release of phosphorus from saturated soil, whereas the phosphorus remains bound to soil in the well-drained wetland. In their leaflet 27, they called “for ecologists, hydrologists and engineers to collaborate in restoring wetlands so they can support native vegetation and manage urban runoff.” In leaflet 28, they showed a “conceptual model of phosphorus mobilization.” In topsoil with oxygen, phosphorus is mostly insoluble; where the soil is water-saturated without oxygen, the phosphorus moves from the soil into the water.

    Beyond the implications for urban stormwater management of using rain gardens and retention ponds with cattails that can cause a release of phosphorus, rural areas with rainfall trapped in VDOT roadside ditches face the same situation — a potential release of phosphorus that would not occur if ditches drained as they were designed to.

    I didn’t see anything in the CBF report about stream restoration or preventing VDOT’s impounding of stormwater in rural roadside ditches to improve oxygenation of the Bay. Without adequate oxygen in the water, natural bacterial populations can’t survive and decompose plant material to improve water clarity.

  4. Sara E. Carter Avatar
    Sara E. Carter

    On the local level, stormwater regulations are not necessarily accomplishing the overall goals of Chesapeake Bay program, yet they are costing land owners quite a bit of money. As Jim has noted, there is quite a bit of low-hanging fruit that is ignored, generally in favor of much more complex regulatory means. Further, there are other opportunities for nutrient reduction that are incredibly easy that have not yet been done. Here are two examples- A farmer is constructing chicken houses for broiler chickens. He is required to have permit coverage for stormwater. Through the review, he is required to construct a sediment trap. He is adjacent to a creek that ultimately ends up in the Bay. This farmer has hundreds of acres. Proactive work with the farmer could have resulted in moving the houses further from the creek, saving him money and reducing runoff into the creek – without needing to maintain a trap or basin. However, there is no mechanism for that in the law or regulations. A second, and more serious example- DGIF (Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) still advocates fertilizing ponds for the purpose of productivity. Some of these fertilized ponds flow into waterways that flow to the Bay. In rural areas, what is being done, and what is being left undone makes little sense in regard to stormwater.

    1. I took a tour of a wastewater treatment plant in Fredericksburg a while back and asked toward the end about what they could not remove – and they said not all nutrients (and not drugs/hormones) but they did use ultra-violet right before discharge.

      so I asked them how much nutrient got discharged and they said 50 lbs a day. So I started thinking – about summertime when the river is very low and hardly flowing – and me walking down there once a day to dump a 50 lb bag of nitrogen into the river and wonder how that would affect the concentration on that stretch of river – realizing also that two miles downstream were two more plants …

      then I realized – I knew nothing about the concentration of nutrients in the river – upstream of the plant and downstream of the plant – and no one else did either – because we do not measure those levels..

      the same goes for the chicken farmer.

      do we know – enough so that we can tell him to change his land use – and the same time we are not requiring storm water changes?

      you’re going to have to have a fair – truth-based, equitable system that legitimately justifies who needs to do what – or we’re going to end up with lawsuits and state and Federal legislators weakening or trying to kill the cleanup. We need to get away from the mindset that the Gov or the POTUS or the EPA or whoever – is going to “force” the changes… that’s going to fail.

      My view is that if we are serious about actually getting a clean-up done – we have to figure out a way to make it happen – and that way won’t be by govt fiat.

  5. Again late.
    Since we don’t give economic value to the “free” services of wetlands in flood control, filtering, and nursery grounds, or even the Bay itself, we really haven’t clue whether we’re following an appropriate cost/benefit analysis to what we do decide to spend on cleanup. Until we give environmental economics a more significant role in determining cleanup and preservation/conservation expenditures, we’re simply guessing about the appropriate levels.

    1. I think Mbaldwin makes an excellent point! How do we reward those who could use their land – legally for agricultural purposes – in ways that there are runoff – for not using the land or using it in ways that actually help ?

      I’m still thinking and believing we do not know the current status of the rivers and sections on the rivers – and we DO have “control” bodies of water – namely reservoirs and especially those high up in the mountains that have no agricultural or municipal inputs. In Virginia and West Virginia there are dozens of these lakes built by the Soil Conservation Service.

      ( A Brief History of NRCS

      On April 27, 1935 Congress passed Public Law 74-46, in which it recognized that “the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands . . . is a menace to the national welfare” and established the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) as a permanent agency in the USDA. )

      the USDA is the same agency that is now using real time nitrogen monitoring devices.

      these lakes were originally put in the National Forests to hold back runoff from denuded slopes that had been timbered and then abandoned.

      but now these lakes are high up enough there are no discharges from farms or municipalities and they, in theory, should have only background nitrogen in them.. the perfect benchmarks for the rivers.

      there is, by the way, some background nitrogen and thus some lakes have virtually none and others have more depending on how much deposition is coming from nearby coal burning plants.

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    From what I have observed, Fairfax County is doing an excellent job of working with the State to comply with storm water management requirements on a going forward basis. With much development requiring rezoning or at least a special exception, more stringent requirements are being implemented. The County is also using some of the additional storm water tax revenue to maintain HOA-owned BMPs.

    1. Really? I went to one public meeting about the Accotink water shed and don’t recall too much adoption of a new pro-active attitude.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        I’ve been told the County is spending considerable sums of money to slow down drainage in that watershed where there is public land. But it indicates it lacks authority to force existing landowners to retrofit their property. The County’s leverage comes when a landowner seeks a land use change. It believes taking over maintenance of residential (non-multi-family) BMP facilities will make a positive impact on over all storm water treatment.

        1. re: ” o slow down drainage in that watershed where there is public land”

          that’s not going to fix the problem though if the water is coming from upstream impervious surfaces that have already polluted the runoff..

          it can’t be fixed at the riparian corridors – the water is already seriously polluted by that point. That’s the entire purpose of storm ponds – to keep that polluted water from going directly into drainages into the creeks.

          you have much tighter standards for new development but how do you fix the older development – of which a lot have no ponds at all?

          how serious is Fairfax about actually dealing with the issue?

          1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            You expect elected officials to force people who have lived in their homes for 10, 20, 30 years to spend thousands of dollars to retrofit their property? That’s what you are effectively saying. As it is, the County is slowly raising the storm water tax to three cents per hundred. How many other cities or counties are doing this?

          2. re: ” You expect elected officials to force people who have lived in their homes for 10, 20, 30 years to spend thousands of dollars to retrofit their property? That’s what you are effectively saying. As it is, the County is slowly raising the storm water tax to three cents per hundred. How many other cities or counties are doing this?”

            of course not – and especially no more than expecting farmers to spend thousands of dollars for farms they barely can pay the taxes on.

            but Fairfax actually did sue the EPA over storm water – and won – which actually will undermine TMDLs for stormwater – across the state.

            The problem is – that farmers – and municipal wastewater treatment plan operators think the Bay cleanup people are now going to focus on them instead.

            and so now the farmers are suing over TMDLs …

            so everyone is trying to get out of the cleanup -in effect although to be fair if Fairfax is instituting a storm water tax – I’d give them more credit than a lot of other places.

            and again – that’s why I think we have to be working off of actual data and not model data.

            If the data shows that, for instance, Accotink is putting in as many pollutants as Blue Plains is – then that knowledge will have a dramatic effect on the public’s attitudes toward the need to pay for cleanup.

            People have to trust the data and the process – ordinary citizens, wastewater treatment operators and farmers. A process that seeks to impose restrictions on the folks least effective in fighting the standards is a failed approach.

            No farmer who raises chickens that feed folks in NoVa is going to look kindly on the Bay Cleanup process to hand over his livelihood to folks in West Va who dump into a different watershed.

            wastewater treatment plant operators will tell you that they are reaching the practical limits of treatment technology without getting into things like reverse osmosis – which will likely double people’s water bills.

            so no one wants to get tagged with the costs.. and that’s quite understandable – but it leads to failure.. also.

            look at how many years the bay cleanup folks have been at this – and how much they have actually achieved… they’ve made some progress but the pace of development is wiping out some of their part because the EPA has been pushed back on TMDLs for storm water – not just in Fairfax – but across the entire 6 or 7 state Chesapeake Bay watershed.

            what to do now?

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