More federal aid is needed to conserve an additional 2 million acres called for under a new federally led Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, according to a new report.
The review describes conservation easements on land in the watershed as one of the effort’s few bright spots. It also calls for expanding trading of pollution-reduction credits.
The report was released Monday by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which advises legislators in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania on bay issues, and the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit bay advocacy group.
The report notes that the six bay watershed states exceeded the goal of conserving 20 percent of the bay watershed by this year. A new bay restoration strategy developed in response to a presidential executive order calls for conserving another 2 million acres by 2025, which the authors say will help keep several million pounds of nitrogen a year out of the bay if coupled with land-management practices.
Nitrogen and phosphorous are so-called nutrients found in fertilizer, animal manure, sewage, auto and power plant emissions and other sources. Once they reach the bay, the nutrients spur algae blooms that rob oxygen from bay waters, causing dead zones that harm water quality and threaten commercially valuable species such as oysters, crabs and rockfish.
While several million pounds is a small fraction of the reductions being sought — the federal strategy calls for a 25 percent cut by 2025 in nitrogen entering the bay to 187.4 million pounds a year — officials with the two groups said the impact of the new effort could be significant in combination with the lands already conserved.
“So, they need to find about 100 million pounds of nitrogen, but the thing that’s important here is that you’re not going to find a big chunk in any one place, or any one practice,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
To help reach that 2-million-acre goal, the report calls for more federal aid. That would also ease some of the impact of the restoration effort, which has been criticized as too burdensome by agriculture and development interests as well as by some state officials.
In a cover letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that accompanied Virginia’s state plan, Douglas W. Domenech, the state’s secretary of natural resources, described the cost of the plan as an “unfunded mandate” and said the success of the program hinges on sufficient federal funding. In a press release accompanying Monday’s report, Domenech said land conservation is a valuable asset for meeting restoration goals, adding that the state’s plan includes voluntary land conservation efforts.
Bill Matuszeski, a senior adviser for the commission, said federal funding to the states from the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a federal program established by Congress in 1964 to provide funds and grants for land acquisition and easements — has dropped in recent years. About half of the money in the program used to go to states, but that has dropped to about 10 percent, with most going to federal lands, Matuszeski said.
Swanson said fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund and providing half of the money to the states could bring about $20 million more to the bay watershed. The report also calls for more funding from the Defense and Interior departments.
Once property has been conserved, the creation of markets for trading pollution credits can help encourage land-management practices that cut pollution.
“Simply preserving land doesn’t improve water quality,” Matuszeski said.
States in the bay watershed have pollution-trading programs that could be expanded, for example, to stormwater permit holders who could purchase credits from farmers, who in turn can make lower cost pollution reductions, he said.
“It would provide some real incentives for the stormwater agencies to seek deals, if you will, with the farm community,” Matuszeski said. “Runoff from farm lands is a source of over half of the nutrient loading in the bay and stormwater alternatives are often very expensive.”