Draft bay plan calls for ‘accelerated’ action on cutting pollution

Bird and marsh grass along the Chesapeake Bay. Image via the Virginia Office of Natural Resources.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has released a draft of a new Chesapeake Bay restoration plan along with a commitment for Virginia to achieve its pollution reduction goals by 2025.

“The commonwealth has made significant progress in reducing pollution, and the bay’s living resources are responding. Cleaner waters are supporting more fish and oysters and underwater grasses are rebounding,” Northam’s office said in a news release.

“Continuing that progress will necessitate accelerated and more significant action by government, wastewater utilities, the agriculture industry, landowners and homeowners, lawn care companies, the general public and many more.”

In particular, to account for the effects of climate change, modeling indicates millions of pounds of nitrogren and phosphorus from sewage treatment and agriculture needs to be cut across the bay watershed.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed. Image from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Virginia’s share of that additional load reduction is 1.7 million pounds of nitrogen and about .2 million pounds of phosphorus, according to the draft plan. Cutting those nutrients, which contribute to algae growth that creates areas of oxygen-starved water in the bay, means beefing up the DEQ’s Stormwater Assistance Local Fund and expanding use of the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program, among a range of other measures, including more vegetative buffers for agricultural land and promoting other best-management practices with state cost-sharing, such as fencing cattle out of streams.

The draft plan says the state “will also pursue legislation establishing a date by which all farms with livestock accessing perennial streams must provide exclusion measures.”

The plan “prioritizes actions that are practical, cost-effective and provide multiple benefits to the commonwealth, whether that is flood control, coastal resilience, wildlife habitat or economic development,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler.

The governor’s and the legislature’s budget amendments put some money behind those promises. That includes an additional $10 million for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which provides matching grants to help localities cut pollution washing into waterways; nearly $90 million over two years for the agricultural cost-share program (what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called an “unprecedented” amount of funding) and more money for oyster restoration.

“This appears to be an excellent draft of Virginia’s Clean Water Blueprint — the single most important roadmap for restoring the commonwealth’s waters,” said Rebecca Tomazin, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia executive director. “If fully implemented, the proposals outlined here will vastly improve the health of Virginia’s rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.”

The plan is open for public comment through June 7.