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Maryland, behind in cleaning up Chesapeake, beefs up restoration efforts

A view of the Honga River near the Chesapeake Bay at sunrise in 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

The clock is ticking for the Chesapeake Bay’s surrounding jurisdictions to meet a 2025 goal set under a federal lawsuit settlement to implement policies and practices for bringing the nation’s largest estuary back to health after decades of pollution.

Last year, Maryland fell short in meeting federally set targets under the settlement for nitrogen and phosphorous, the two pollutants that have fueled algae blooms leading to low-oxygen “dead zones” harmful to fish and other aquatic life, according to a June evaluation by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Overall, the state has achieved 58 percent of its 2025 goals for nitrogen and 74 percent of its phosphorous reduction target, according to a separate assessment published in June by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In hopes of accelerating the state’s efforts, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced Monday that 22 bay restoration projects — including stream restorations, rain gardens and storm pond retrofits — would be awarded a combined $18.8 million in grants.

“Each of these projects plays a critical role in improving the quality of the bay, and making our ecosystem more resilient,” Hogan said in a statement.

Since 2019, Maryland has spent nearly $500 million on bay-related restoration projects, the most so far of any of the neighboring jurisdictions.

The commitment is part of what has become a race against time to reduce the effects of urban pollution in an area of the country that continues to grow. Automobile oil on roads, construction-site debris and general pollution are all flowing into surrounding streams that feed into the bay’s larger tributaries, including the Potomac River.

In more rural areas, agricultural runoff, including fertilizer and pesticides, have been contributing to the problem.

“If you look at pollution coming from urban and suburban land, pollution increases, and a lot of that is because we’re converting more land into developed land,” said Beth McGee, director of science and agricultural policy at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Now, we have a lot more land that’s in that category.”

In 2020, Washington-region jurisdictions and Delaware sued the EPA for what they claimed was a lack of aggressive enforcement of the 2010 settlement in states that were far behind in meeting the 2025 goal, especially Pennsylvania, undercutting their efforts.

With the bay’s health slightly improving, that case is currently in settlement discussions.

Under the 2010 court settlement reached between the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, if the 2025 timetable is not met, permits for projects with new sources of pollution must be withheld, including for sewage treatment plants and other major projects.

Last year, Maryland’s reduction efforts were stymied when major pollution violations were found at the state’s two largest wastewater treatment plants, leading to millions of gallons of bacteria and nutrient-laden wastewater dumping into waterways flowing into the bay. Still, the state is on track for meeting its goals for reducing sediment.

Virginia has reached 75 percent of the 2025 reduction goal for nitrogen, 68 percent of the reduction goal for phosphorus and 100 percent of the reduction goal for sediment, the foundation found.

The District has so far been on target with meeting its goals for all three pollutants, according to the EPA.

The efforts have led to stream restoration projects across the region, with each project aimed at meeting state-mandated reduction targets — known as “total maximum daily loads” for those pollutants.

The 22 projects receiving money through Maryland’s Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund include the Croydon Creek-Calvin Park Tributary Stream Restoration project in the city of Rockville. That $3.2 million effort will get $2 million in new state funding.

Montgomery County will get $550,000 for four storm-water pond retrofits and a tree-planting project near the Wheaton Branch storm water management pond outside Sligo Creek.

Baltimore County will receive $1.4 million for its Kings Eye Stream and Riparian Corridor Restoration project near the eroded banks at Piney Run.

Several rural counties will receive money to restore floodplains, create wetlands and, in Kent County, re-create a beaver dam to help filter pollutants that have made their way into Turner’s Creek.

McGee said meeting the 2025 implementation goal “is gonna be a stretch” for most of the jurisdictions unless they accelerate their efforts.

“It seems to be a little bit of a long shot, but we’re going to keep the pedal to the metal until 2025,” McGee said.


A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that a 2010 court settlement was with the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay's neighboring jurisdictions. The settlement was between the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The article has been corrected.