Center for Progressive Reform

Saving the Chesapeake

More Backsliding, or Real Progress?

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America, home to more than 3,600 species of plants and animals. The Chesapeake Bay watershed—the land that drains into the Bay—encompasses parts of six states and Washington, D.C. This national treasure has been deteriorating since the 1930s.

For three decades, states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed entered into voluntary agreements with one another promising to clean up the Bay with little to show for their efforts. No single state is solely to blame for the lack progress; rather, the repeated failures can be attributed to a dysfunctional “collaborative partnership” between the various states, all of which came to the negotiating table with wildly different priorities. In May 2009, President Obama breathed new life into Bay restoration efforts when he issued an Executive Order directing EPA to take a leadership role in cleaning up the Bay. 


Halftime for the Chesapeake Bay

The long-running effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay to health has reached a critical juncture. The current restoration effort known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Bay established 2017 as the first of two key deadlines. By then, the state and federal partners were to have in place 60 percent of all projects, practices, and policies needed to reach final pollution reduction targets by 2025.

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Toxic Floodwaters

The James River watershed in Virginia is among the regions of the country most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. When climate-driven hurricanes come, many communities in the region will be vulnerable to floodwaters made toxic by chemical and hazardous waste facilities vulnerable to flooding.According to CPR's March 2019 report, more than 1,000 industrial facilities regulated for toxic and hazardous chemicals in the watershed are vulnerable to flooding, imperiling more than 470,000 Virginians living in nearby low-income communities.

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The 2019 WIPs

In April 2019, each of the Chesapeake Bay states submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the public drafts of their Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans, encompassing their plans for meeting the 2025 pollution reduction targets. Read an evaluation of the plans put forward by the three states responsible for the bulk of the pollution in the Bay: Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. 

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Toxic Runoff in Maryland

More than 900 industrial facilities in Maryland are subject to the state’s industrial stormwater “general permit,” a critical tool for achieving Clean Water Act goals. But compliance with the permit is hit or miss, and the Maryland Department of the Environment's enforcement is feeble. Read more.

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Preserving a National Treasure

The resulting Bay-wide pollution diet, referred to in the Clean Water Act as a total maximum daily load (TMDL), followed in 2010. It imposed strict limits on the quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that could be discharged into the Bay and allocated the total permissible amount of each pollutant among the Bay states and the District of Columbia. The Bay TMDL is the most ambitious and largest TMDL in the country and, if implemented correctly, offers the estuary its best chance at recovery. In the years following, the states in the Bay watershed worked with varying degrees of diligence to implement the TMDL.

The Trump Administration has shown no enthusiasm for the Bay cleanup effort, and outright hostility to environmental efforts overall, raising doubt about whether the Trump EPA will hold states' feet to the fire if they backslide on the TMDL.

CPR Member Scholars and staff have worked to keep the states on track, issuing a series of reports and creating a number of other tools to help  policymakers and the public gauge progress.  

Highlights of CPR's Work on the Chesapeake Bay:

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