We can live off the land — until we can't. Climate change is fundamentally changing the way farmers produce food, right down to the soil itself.
The Chesapeake Bay’s health grade fell from a C- to a D+ in a biennial report card released earlier this month — the first time in a decade the Bay’s health has declined.
The assessment from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation acknowledged the “grim reality” of climate change and emphasized the importance of stopping the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental protections.
So, what can be done to save the Bay? We’ll discuss with the lead scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the environmental reporter from the Baltimore Sun.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For the first time in a decade, the Chesapeake Bay's health grade has declined. 2018's record rainfall washed increased pollution from farms and city streets into the Bay's waterways, earning the Chesapeake a D+ grade, overall. As climate change intensifies, what challenges does the Chesapeake face, and what can be done to save the Bay? Joining us by phone is Scott Dance. He's a Baltimore Sun reporter covering environment and weather. Scott Dance, thank you for joining us.
SCOTT DANCESure. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining me in studio is Beth McGee, director of science and agricultural policy with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Beth, thank you for joining us.
BETH MCGEEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe had a massive amount of rain in 2018. How did that affect the Bay's health?
MCGEESo, as you mentioned in your intro, when we get a lot of rain, we get a lot of runoff of the pollutants that we're concerned about for the Chesapeake Bay. So, that would be nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment. They're coming from our city streets. They're coming from our yards. They're coming from agricultural lands. So, simply translated, a lot of rain, a lot of runoff. People probably noticed their streams overflowing. And with all that rain and runoff comes pollutants that affect the Bay.
NNAMDILet's talk seafood. What did the record rainfall mean for the survival of crabs, oysters, fish and other marine life?
MCGEESo, I think we're still uncovering those impacts, but one thing we know for sure is that oysters, in some areas, were affected. In the Potomac River, for example, oysters have a limited salinity tolerance. When we get a lot of fresh water coming in, we can actually see more tell, and we saw that in the Potomac River.
NNAMDIWhat are the markers of a healthy bay?
MCGEESo, some of the things we look at are underwater grasses. Those are important for habitat for larval, fish and crabs. And scientists map them every year, so we know acreage of underwater grasses. That's a key indicator that indicates how clear the water is, because grasses need sunlight. The other key indicator we look at is dissolved oxygen. So,, critters that live in the Bay -- crabs, oysters, fish that we love to harvest from the Bay -- need oxygen to survive, just like we do. And so what we're looking at is how that size of what we call the dead zone -- which is the area without oxygen -- changes year to year and over the long term.
NNAMDIHow is the government shutdown affecting the Bay?
MCGEESo, the glue that holds the Bay restoration effort together is called the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is led by the Environmental Protection Agency, but also includes many other federal agencies like the US Geological Survey that does a lot of monitoring, NOAA, which does a lot of oyster restoration. And so those meetings and decisions that are made by the Bay Program are not happening right now. What is driving Bay cleanup are watershed implementation plans, the cleanup plans for the Bay. And we're worried that we may see some delays in the development and implementation of those plans.
NNAMDIScott, you report on environment and weather for the Baltimore Sun. What happened this past year? Exactly how much rain did we get?
DANCEYeah. I mean, at BWI Airport, which is the point of record for Baltimore, it was almost 72 inches. And that is about 30 inches more than normal, you know, almost twice normal rainfall. It was especially unusual in the summer months, which are actually -- tend to be a little bit of a drier time in the year. And, you know, we were actually dealing with a building drought in July, first half of July, before this pattern just started that -- you know, kept kind of sending Gulf of Mexico moisture just streaming up the East Coast. And so, you know, this pattern just kind of overwhelmed things. You know, we had some tropical influences in the fall. But, yeah. It was a very unusual year.
NNAMDIBeth, the Chesapeake Bay earned a C- in 2016, a D+ in 2018. But the C- in 2016 was the best Bay grade ever. What's the scale, here?
MCGEESo, the scale is zero to 100, but the 100 is what the theoretical bay that Captain John Smith saw more than 400 years ago. So, we can't get there. What we think is possible is somewhere around a 70. So, we're grading on a curve, if you will.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here now is Dick in Rockville, Maryland. Dick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DICKHowdy. I'm just calling in because the subject is important to what we do all the time. We work on a nutrient trading program in Virginia. And you may or may not know about that, but that's basically a way to compensate farmers for adding more nutrient capture than they otherwise would. They can earn credits that can then be sold on an open market. Maryland has not done that. Some of us are a bit critical, or I guess we're a little bit miffed at why Maryland has spent a lot of time and money to create a nutrient trading platform and software, but yet they haven't implemented it.
DICKSo, even though none of us, whether we're in the farming side or the suburban side or the urban side, none of us can change the fact that last year's rainfall was 80-some inches or more than double the usual. It still seems important to move programs ahead that incentivize everyone to watch the runoffs.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Care to comment, Beth?
MCGEEI guess I would say with respect to Maryland's program, what he's talking about is sort of a cap and trade. So, in carbon, we know what a cap and trade is. And there's been discussions of doing similar things in the water space. And I think what you need when you have a cap and trade is a demand, right. And I think what we're seeing in Maryland is we don't quite have the demand. That would be my comment.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Dick. Scott, what are the challenges that the Bay is facing?
DANCEI mean, just the continued onslaught of these pollutants that Beth is talking about. I mean, it's, you know, like you said, too, also, they come from all different sources. So, you know, as Chesapeake Bay restoration effort has gotten going, there's sort of bigger ticket projects that have been tapped that, you know, say, treatment plants or, you know, other big sources of pollution. But now, you know, a lot of the environmentalists are saying the challenge is that we've got the low-hanging fruit for the years to come towards this 2025 goal, you know, benchmark of restoring the Bay.
DANCEIt's increasingly these smaller, you know, more spread out influences that people don't necessarily understand that they're responsible for, that they're contributing to. And so, like, that example of the nutrient trading is an idea, or other -- you know, the rain tax or this storm water fee that has been put in place, but then kind of fought back in some parts of Maryland. They're all about this idea of tackling what they would call, like, nonpoint sources of pollution that a lot of people overlook, but, you know, that obviously add up to a big impact on the Bay.
NNAMDISame question to you, Beth, the challenges being faced by the Bay.
MCGEEI think Scott laid that out beautifully. What I would add is that -- so we look at last year and we say, well, that was a really odd year. But what scientists tell us is that with climate change, we're going to have more severe storms in this area. We're going to have warmer water. We're going to have sea level rise, all of which are going to make the challenge of Bay restoration even more difficult than it already is.
NNAMDIScott, what role is the Trump administration playing here?
DANCEI mean, there's -- I hear a lot of concerns just about that the -- like Beth mentioned, the EPA has a big watchdog role. But especially, you know, under former administrator Scott Pruitt, but just in general, under the Trump administration, there's been a little bit more of an approach to step back a little bit and let states decide on things. You know, the concerns of Bay advocates is that not all states are doing the same things to address the Bay, and only the Federal Government can sort of step in and say, you know, what states have to do. You know, Maryland can't force Pennsylvania to adopt any certain policy or, you know, make any other efforts to clean up the Bay.
DANCESo, you know, for example, one recent move that they made was to sort of initiate this rolling back of a rule called Waters of the US, which basically determines what waterways are subject to federal oversight. And, you know, what I heard from a lot of people is that it's not necessarily a huge concern in a place like Maryland, where there's already a lot of policies in place, you know, that affect farmers and are concerning to farmers. And whereas in Pennsylvania or -- to a lesser extent -- Delaware, that federal rule plays a more important role in addressing some of these, you know, sources of pollution.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned Pennsylvania, because Pennsylvania's often called out for being part of the increased pollution flowing into the Bay's waterways. Why is that?
DANCEI mean, it has a huge impact on the Bay, because of the Susquehanna River watershed. I mean, it stretches across, you know, most of central Pennsylvania, all the way up into a little bit of Upstate New York. And so, you know, it drains a much bigger area than any other river feeding especially into the Maryland portion of the Bay. And so we saw a lot of attention on the Conowingo Dam, which is the hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River just north of its mouth to the Chesapeake Bay.
DANCEAnd, you know, concerns about debris that all this rain washed down through the dam and the fact that Exelon, the company that owns the dam, had opened floodgates and let all this pollution through, when really, you know, it was a matter of flood control and their restrictions on, you know, how much flow. But, basically, all year last year, they were seeing record flows on the Susquehanna which means, yeah, just more and more stuff being washed down from that huge watershed across the Bay.
NNAMDI(overlapping) And what is Pennsylvania doing to help the Bay right now? Are they providing resources for conservation, for cleanup?
DANCEYeah. I mean, they're making efforts. I mean, they, like you said, are repeatedly kind of getting a lot of the blame and, you know, saying that they aren't doing as much as other states. But, you know, we hear from them every time that it's brought up that they're making effort to change that. So, I guess, you know, we'll see how that goes.
NNAMDIHow does this pollution affect the Bay's marine life?
DANCEI mean, on a sort of practical scale like, you know, you have all this debris washing in or sediment that you can see sort of clouding the water and the impact. That could be, you know, just literally smothering some of these habitats. You know, bay grasses that have had such a resurgence, you know, can be affected by that. And the nutrients are fueling algae blooms, which sort of cause this process that leads to the dead zones, where when they die, they strip oxygen from the water. So, you know, if you're a juvenile crab or a juvenile fish, you know, basically, that means maybe you have fewer places to find to sort of hide or to find food, you know, protect yourself from predators and, you know, grow to be the next generation of catch in the Bay.
NNAMDIHere's Will in Vancouver, Washington. Will, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WILLThank you, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. Longtime listener. Yes, I lived in Annapolis, Maryland from '96 to 2016. In my experience of living there -- and I was an active sailor on the Chesapeake Bay -- we've had the flush tax, the storm water fees from the cities, crop covers, the killing of swans, the repair of septic tanks. So, my bigger question is, when are -- is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and politicians going to go not only after upstream polluters, but going after the big farmers and the chicken farmers for dumping all the nitrates into the Bay? And thank you for taking my call.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. Beth McGee?
MCGEESure. So, good question. I think one thing is important to keep in mind. In Pennsylvania -- which, as Scott mentioned, is a huge land area feeding the Bay -- most of that land is agriculture. And most of the farms are actually small farms. There's something like 32,000 farms within the Chesapeake Bay part of Pennsylvania, and most of those are small farms. So, we definitely need to be reducing pollution from agriculture, but to point fingers at big farms, it's big farms, it's small farms, so that's part of the solution.
MCGEEChesapeake Bay Foundation has had an office in Pennsylvania since the '80s, because of its importance in terms of ultimately restoring the Bay. And, you know, we actively worked to reduce pollution and try to pass legislation that will provide conservation for farmers.
NNAMDIIs there anything more you can do to push farmers?
MCGEEI mean, Pennsylvania, we can regulate farmers at the state level. And, in fact, Pennsylvania has regulations, as does Maryland, that affect farmers and will help reduce pollution. We have programs that pay farmers to do conservation, whether they're at the federal level -- we just passed a farm bill that actually brought -- will bring some more conservation dollars to the region's farmers. And there are state programs. I wanted to add on to what Scott said about Pennsylvania. They are committed to bay restoration, but they are the one state within the Bay watershed that actually does not have a dedicated state funding sources for farmers to implement conservation practices. And that, in our mind, should be a priority for them.
NNAMDITim, on the eastern shore in Virginia, wants to talk about preservation. Tim, your turn.
TIMYeah, well, it's interesting to hear how people are wringing their hands about all this. I'm a farmer. I have a little over 3,000 feet of my farm is on the Chesapeake Bay, or Creek Road that goes out on the Chesapeake Bay. I'm a poultry farmer, as well. And we have about 150 acres on our home farm, here. And I can't get our farm into a -- what do you call it -- (word?) program so that it'll never be developed. A very good organization. The Virginia Outdoors Association has tried to help me. Our bank is in favor of it, and we're trying to get FHA to bend, and they won't.
TIMEven though we've got twice the amount of collateral needed, they just -- I can't seem to open the door -- or the right door to find out how we can possibly get our farm enrolled in this, you know, this program where it'll never be developed. We do get constantly -- we've never had bad stewardship records or, you know, write ups. We get DEQ and EPA (word?) yearly, and, you know, but gosh, I just simply can't get the right person...
NNAMDIIs it simply foot-dragging on the part of the government? Is it simply a bureaucracy that's too difficult to navigate, Tim?
TIMYou know, I get that impression. Most everybody I've talked to is afraid to step out too far, you know, because they'll be upstaged by perhaps someone a little higher up the line. And it could be just me, and I'm really getting discouraged, because, you know, how much do you have to do before, you know, you hear people crying about it, they're wringing their hands. And, you know, even though our creek is a nice creek. I just saw about 12 or 13, I guess it was, wood ducks this morning as I went out the driveway. And it's a beautiful little creek, but it just -- they talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk. That's the feds.
MCGEESo, I assume you're talking about agricultural preservation programs that will pay farmers to permanently keep their farms and farmland. And Virginia's got a program, and so does Maryland. You know, I can't really speak specifically to it. I do know that, in many cases, those programs are over-subscribed, meaning there's clearly more demand than there is supply of dollars to do that. On the other hand, it sounds like you're a good steward of the land, and one would hope that you'd make some progress. So...
NNAMDIBeth, the report called out the quote-unquote "grim reality" of climate change. So, how much of this can we really control?
MCGEEWell, although we can't control the weather, our actions on the land can reduce the impacts of the weather. So, in other words, we can do things on the land that will keep water and allow it to percolate back into groundwater -- into groundwater, as opposed to running off. And so the Bay will always be susceptible to good years and bad years, largely driven by the amount of rainfall that we get. But we certainly can do a better job of managing rain when it does come onto our landscapes.
NNAMDIWhat is truly possible for the Bay? We know we can't ever get back to the pristine, pre-colonial waters that existed. That's 100. But we can get to 70. What would 70 look like?
MCGEESo, 70 would like -- that's a great question, because we think about this a lot internally. Seventy would be healthy levels of dissolved oxygen. So, during the summer, we don't have a ginormous dead zone, which is an area which is basically off limits for rock fish and crabs and oysters. Underwater grasses are four times what they are now, so right now, they're about 100,000 acres. So, blanketing our shallow areas with underwater grasses, abundant fish and crabs and oysters. You know, right now our crab score is about in the 50, our oysters are around two out of, you know, zero to 100. So, we'd like to see those numbers clearly much better than they are, reflecting a bountiful resource.
NNAMDIIn the 30 seconds we have left, give us a bit of good news. What positive signs did you see in the Bay's report card?
MCGEEGreat question. Love to end on a positive note. So, despite the fact that we had a bad year, there are a couple of scientific papers that came out this year that looked at the long term trends in the dead zone. And a couple things to note, one is if you look over the long term, the size of the dead zone is shrinking, so the volume of the Bay that doesn't have dissolved oxygen is actually getting smaller over the long term, as well as the fact that it seems to be breaking up earlier in the summer. So, while we're going to have these fluctuations year to year, when you look at the long term indicators, we do have reason to be optimistic.
NNAMDIBeth McGee, Scott Dance, thank you both for joining us. Today's show on the Chesapeake Bay was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Today's conversation on the effects of the shutdown on the local restaurant industry was produced by Mark Gunnery. Next week, we're talking the gig economy. Are you an Uber driver, TaskRabbit, part time or temporary worker? We'd like to hear from you. Head to KojoShow.org/blog to take our survey. Coming up tomorrow, we meet Maryland poet laureate Grace Cavalieri, who has been writing plays and poetry and hosting her own radio show for decades. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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