Save the Bay!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on an article about Wicomico County, MD’s watershed implementation plan, or WIP.  It’s part of an inter-state program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  The article started out as an audition for my own environmental radio show, but I actually found myself in a sort of war between the legislative team who put the WIP together and the local environmental organization, who were completely (and stupidly, in my opinion) shut out of the process.  Overall, the Wico WIP is not that impressive, especially when compared with other counties’ WIPs, and the people in charge of it did not seem interested in helping a young environmental enthusiast understand why a watershed cleanup did not address herbicides, pesticides, estrogens, or any kind of pollutant other than phosphorous and nitrogen.  I would love to publish all the information I’ve collected on this subject, but I could literally fill a short book, so I’ll just have to settle with sharing the basic facts:

Wicomico County’s WIP: Slow But Steady Progress Toward Bay Health


In 2009, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to comply with the Clean Water Act of 1972, namely its failure to protect the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  In response to the conflict, President Obama issued an Executive Order naming the Bay a national treasure and establishing a committee, comprised of several federal agencies including the EPA, charged with developing a plan to restore the Bay and control pollution throughout its watershed.  After working with the six states that fall in the Bay watershed – Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia – and the District of Columbia, the EPA generated a Bay “pollution diet” in December 2010. This diet established total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for phosphorous, nitrogen, and sediments for each state in the watershed.  The TMDLs were based on the states’ watershed implementation plans (WIP), comprehensive strategies to lower pollutants in their waterways.


The restoration of the Bay is a long process, with the long-term cleanup goals set for 2020.  Each state’s course of action is determined by its WIP, a three-phase plan with milestones set at various stages to ensure each state is making progress.  Phase I WIPs, submitted in November 2010, proposed general, state-wide strategies and outlined sediment allocations for each region.  Phase II narrowed its focus to the county level, and local governments were responsible for drawing their own WIPs in which they described the best management practices (BMPs) for reducing pollution in five sectors:  individual septic systems, urban run-off, waste water treatment plants, agriculture, and forest.  The phase II drafts were submitted in December 2011, and are now under review by the EPA.  The final phase II drafts will be submitted in March.  Phase III, set for 2017, will be based on the success of the phase II WIPs.  The Bay restoration plan calls for a 60% reduction of pollutants by 2017 and the remaining 30% by 2020, and the phase III WIPs will depend on how close each state has come to reaching these milestones.


Wicomico County’s phase II WIP is the product of a team of representatives from local legislative organizations, waste water treatment plants, and agriculture, led by Keith Hall, the Long-Range and Transportation Planner for Wicomico County.  Most of the focus falls on septic systems and waste water treatment plants, with one BMP being to link septic systems to a public waste water treatment plant.  Other BMPs in the septic systems section include upgrades of outdated systems to Nutrient Removal Technology, septic system pumping, and an increase of the “flush tax” to cover the renovations.  Upgrades to the waste water treatment plants are necessary as well.  BMPs for the urban runoff section include growth reduction and the installation of rain gardens, urban trees, and bioswales to increase bioretention, or the separation of stormwater and sediments.  However, because of cost, the WIP recommends that instead of implementing all of these BMPs, Wicomico Co. limit its Urban Runoff program to voluntary tree planting and Urban Nutrient Management programs that would limit the amount of fertilizer used on lawns.  Though it was not included in the phase II WIP, the City of Salisbury has installed over 1,000 feet of living shoreline along Beaverdam Creek since 2006, a project that will help prevent soil erosion and filter pollution from runoff entering the creek.  Wicomico’s phase II WIP did not address the forest section.


As directed by the EPA, the Agriculture section is handled by a separate work group, led by Kevin Keenan of the Soil Conservation District.  While the SCD has a considerable list of BMPs included in the phase II WIP – including cover crops, nutrient management, water reuse, wetland restoration, precision agriculture practices, and dead poultry composting – there are many more strategies already in use by farmers.  The SCD had enough of these programs in place before the WIP process began that the agricultural section was already well within its TMDL for nitrogen.  Kevin Keenan, District Manager of the SCD, claims that “everything looks very favorable” in regards to meeting the 2012-2013 milestones.  However, the WIP does not address the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides that leak chemicals into the groundwater, though Keenan claims “we don’t have a lot of problems with herbicide runoff… and most pesticides are applied to a crop when there is a pest problem.  You wouldn’t apply them otherwise.”


Although there are no biology/ecology experts on the WIP team, nor any member of the Wicomico Environmental Trust, team leader Keith Hall stresses that “involvement and participation of non-profit organizations is imperative.”  Yet none of the vast array of programs WET has implemented to reduce watershed pollution were included in the phase II WIP, including its county-wide tree canopy assessment, a ground survey, volunteer-based tree-planting program, and the $75,000 grant WET wrote toward the watershed cleanup process.  According to John Groutt, former WET board member and member of WET’s Land Committee, “we’re doing things that are not being recognized in this plan…  We are trying to develop a plan in the county that would identify these very important green infrastructure hubs and suggest ways they may be protected or preserved.”  When asked if the WIP should broaden its scope to address water pollution issues beyond the three pollutants it covers – phosphorous, nitrogen, and sediments – Groutt agrees that “pesticides and herbicides – and what you haven’t mentioned, the personal products like estrogens and cleaning products – aren’t being taken out…  I don’t think they even know how to address it.”


Despite its shortcomings, both Hall and Groutt agree that Wicomico’s phase II WIP is a solid start toward the goal of restoring the Chesapeake Bay.  “All the states… have a part in cleaning up their share,” says Groutt, “That is one of the really strong elements of the WIP.”   According to Hall, the largest problem the phase II WIP faces is funding, which is why many of its BMPs rely on volunteers.  Both groups also agree on the importance of public participation, and information on meetings and volunteer opportunities can be found on both WET and Maryland’s Department of the Environment websites.


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