Chesapeake Bay Year in Review: A Beneath-the-Headlines Look at Some of the Biggest Restoration and Clean-up Issues

by Evan Isaacson

December 12, 2018

It's that point in the year when we take a step back and reflect on the past 12 months. This was a big year for those concerned about restoring the Chesapeake Bay, with plenty of feel-good stories about various species and ecosystems rebounding more quickly than expected. There were also more than a few headlines about record-setting rainfalls washing trash down the rivers, over dams, and coating the Bay's shores. But I am going to look beneath the headlines at what is driving – or hindering – our progress in restoring the Bay and where things stand now that we're just past the halfway mark in the current Bay cleanup framework. So, in no particular order, here are the top 10 stories and issues I've been watching this year, which I'll expand upon in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

10) States Began to Craft Their Third and Final Watershed Implementation Plans. In June, EPA laid out its expectations for the development of the watershed implementation plans (WIPs) that are to show how states will reach their final 2025 pollution reduction targets. Following the release of the surprisingly strong "expectations" document, the states began to hold roundtables and meet with hundreds of advocates and stakeholders before crafting draft plans. When the completed drafts of each state's WIP are released to the public in early 2019, they are supposed to demonstrate in careful detail what "management actions" the states will rely on to close the gap between current pollution levels and the 2025 target levels.

9) Climate Impacts on the Bay Were Front and Center, but Plans to Adapt Are Lagging. Many parts of the country saw rainfall records shattered in 2018, and the Chesapeake Bay was no exception. For years, climate scientists and experts within the Chesapeake Bay Program have been telling us that our region would get wetter and, importantly, that our heavy rains and snowfall would get even heavier and more intense, with significant ramifications for Bay health. This year, those projections came to pass, in spades. Time and again, the Bay's tributaries swelled with rainwater, floodgates opened, and trash and debris were carried downstream and into the main stem of the Bay, leaving in its wake a cocktail of public outrage and political posturing. But while state officials pointed fingers across state lines, they were not nearly as eager to take the lead in addressing the pollution associated with climate-induced storms.

8) New EPA Leadership Quietly Suppressed Enforcement of Environmental Laws. A grossly under-reported story this year was the slow, gradual, but meaningful changes being made at EPA headquarters. First under Scott Pruitt and then Andrew Wheeler, those in power in Washington created obstacles for staff, particularly those in the regional EPA offices, in charge of enforcing violations and overseeing state regulatory agencies. The reason this story has not received much attention is that these new controls have been established through a series of internal memos and guidance documents, rather than legislation or executive orders. But the effect has been clear and rather remarkable, with enforcement levels dropping precipitously at EPA and among some states in 2018. So while the Trump administration's effort to gut existing ...

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