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More work needed to clean up Chesapeake Bay, but progress has been made. How can Virginia help?

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said more investments are needed to make significant progress, particularly in reducing pollution from agricultural sources.

NORFOLK, Va. — Author's note: The video above is about federal funding for Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. It aired on May 2.

The Chesapeake Bay, spanning 200 miles from Northern Maryland to Coastal Virginia, is home to some of the nation's finest natural beauty, rich wildlife and glimpses into American history.

More than 18 million people reside within the bay's watershed, a six-state region comprised of 50 major rivers and streams that flow into the body of water. But the bay faces an existential threat: pollution caused by human activity.

Despite decades of efforts by the government and partner organizations to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, a recent report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) shows there's more work to be done.

In the report released June 6, the bay received a C grade, with the strong points being better water quality (specifically, improving concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous) and increasing aquatic grass coverage. However, one of the weak points is degrading water clarity.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is working to make sure the six watershed states are taking steps in the right direction, for both the water and the people who depend on it.

"[The bay] has been a constantly replenishing source of economic returns and cultural returns," CBF Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner said in an interview with 13News Now. "Degrading this resource is something we don't want to happen on our watch."

The threat to the Chesapeake Bay explained

There are several layers to the threat the Chesapeake Bay faces. According to CBF, the three major pollutants that contribute to the poor health of the bay are nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus cause unnaturally high levels of algae growth in the water, which blocks sunlight from reaching underwater grasses that serve as food and habitat.

Adding to the problem, tiny particles of sediment turn the water cloudy, which also blocks sunlight from reaching aquatic grasses. The sediment can also smother oysters and other species once it settles to the bottom.

Nitrogen and phosphorous come from fertilizers, wastewater, septic tank discharges, air pollution and runoff, while sediment comes from erosion and construction sites.

Forests and farmlands should naturally filter these pollutants before reaching the water, but because of development, too many pollutants are washing off the land. This diminishes the bay's dissolved oxygen levels, resulting in "dead zones" where aquatic inhabitants can't live.

And if these problems weren't enough, global climate change makes things more complicated: more rainfall and rising sea levels hurt the bay, too.

Sanner explained that warmer temperatures and increased precipitation are causing more frequent and intense storms, which contributes to increased pollution runoff.

Sea-level rise can cause flooded septic systems that pollute the water, the drowning of marshes that help reduce pollution and warmer water that will change aquatic habitats.

"There's a great consensus on this: [Climate change] will increase the difficulty of achieving a restored bay," Sanner said. "There's no question about that."

More funding, better practices needed to address bay pollution, CBF says

Sanner said more investments from Virginia, the region and the federal government are needed to make significant progress with cleaning the bay, particularly in reducing pollution from agricultural sources.

"It's more difficult to control pollution from nonpoint sources like agriculture," Sanner explained. "We haven't funded this work at nearly the levels we need to control it."

In response to the UMCES report, CBF proposed that watershed jurisdictions invest in regenerative agriculture, tree and forest buffers along streams and green infrastructure.

"All of those practices tend to help keep nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment on the land and not in the water," Sanner said. "For example, trees take up some of these nutrients and use nutrients to grow."

She added that buffers will help stop or slow down the flow of stormwater, allowing it to filtrate into the soil and reach the groundwater, where it's cleaned and cooled off.

Sanner said the agriculture industry can adopt better practices to protect the waterways, including keeping cattle out of the streams and, to do so, temporary fencing for farmers who rent their land.

While these sound like no-brainers, Sanner said, best practices can be expensive, even with financial support from the government.

"We're trying to work with regulators and farmers to tweak those programs to make them more effective and less expensive," Sanner explained.

When it comes to things the cleanup effort is doing right, Sanner pointed out the work underway on "point" sources of pollution (ex. wastewater and other industrial sources), constant tweaking of practices, federal funding and support for bay programs.

'Historic' investments for the bay included in Virginia's proposed budget

CBF praised the bipartisan budget deal the Virginia General Assembly recently passed, saying its "historic" investments for the bay are urgently needed for Virginia to meet commitments to reduce pollution.

Sanner is optimistic that the funding will help address the issues of agricultural pollution. In the two-year budget:

  • The Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share program, and related programs supporting farmers who adopt conservation practices, would be fully funded for two years. Approximately $280 million would be deposited to the Natural Resources Commitment Fund and an additional $40.6 million would support conservation practices that reduce pollution.
  • The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund would receive $25 million, which provides state grants to localities and others for projects that reduce polluted runoff from cities and suburbs.
  • Projects to modernize outdated combined sewer systems in Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg would get a total of $165 million. This would help stop raw sewage from entering the James and Potomac rivers after heavy rainfalls.
  • $70 million for upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, which would help reduce nutrient and sediment pollution that causes dead zones.
  • $700,000 for environmental education activities across Virginia and $500,000 in grants to provide students with Chesapeake Bay "meaningful watershed educational experiences."
  • $400,000 for freshwater mussel restoration that would help filter and clean water in streams.

The budget still needs to be signed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who could either approve it immediately or send it back to the legislature with amendment requests.

"We are hopeful the governor will approve it," Sanner said.

During Youngkin's inaugural State of the Commonwealth speech in January, he expressed support for water cleanup efforts and "fully funding" best practices on farms across Virginia.

"We are going to see the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay to the finish line," Youngkin told Virginia legislators during his speech.

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