Stormwater Runoff Threatens the Chesapeake Bay
by Erin Zaske, Chief Development Officer
Lake Waterford, a Maryland lake found in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is the spawning ground of the famous recreational fishing catch yellow perch. Every spring, mature yellow perch swim up the Magothy River to lay eggs in Lake Waterford, their generational nursery. This year, volunteers with the Magothy River Association (MRA) counted 248 egg chains, each comprised of thousands of individual eggs, a record-breaking count since monitoring began. However, few if any of these eggs will develop due to unmanaged stormwater runoff.
For over a year, the MRA has monitored the runoff from a local garbage collection and waste management facility found just up the road from Lake Waterford. Reports claim this facility left waste storage bins, vehicle parts and trash exposed to precipitation, allowing sediment-ridden stormwater to wash from the industrial site into Lake Waterford. In mid-March, one heavy rain event flushed large quantities of sediment from the site into Lake Waterford, when the newly laid yellow perch eggs were most vulnerable. The dissolved clay and sand particles from this stormwater runoff got caught in egg membranes, heating the embryos and preventing development. This preventable stormwater disaster led to the near eradication of an entire generation of yellow perch.
Anne Arundel County's Bureau of Watershed Protection and Restoration was called to the scene to install straw bales and other filtration tools as a last effort to protect the waterway from the contaminated runoff. Unfortunately, while these short-term efforts limited further immediate contamination, it was too late for thousands of yellow perch spawn.
Long-term corrections are being enforced upon the trash collection facility by the Maryland Department of the Environment after it was brought to light that the site had no permit coverage, no stormwater pollution prevention plan, and no protective measures in place despite industrial sites like this one requiring such. In addition, a lawsuit imposed by the Maryland Department of the Environment against the industrial facility is currently seeking financial penalties of up to $10,000 daily for the 213 days the site operated without required permits.
The negligence of the waste management facility is an excellent example of how the impact of unmanaged stormwater runoff by a single site can significantly impact the ecosystem of one body of water. Imagine the detrimental and widespread environmental effects that could be faced throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed by unmanaged stormwater. Industrial sites like the one near Waterford Lake are required by the Clean Water Act (CWA) to manage and regulate stormwater runoff, and because this site failed to do so, they are now facing the consequences. However, unmanaged stormwater from sites that do not require to manage their stormwater runoff due to their property size also poses a threat to Chesapeake Bay health. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) determined that there are 3 million acres of developed land within the Bay watershed with no federal stormwater requirements. These unregulated sites are among the most significant hindrances preventing successful long-term Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts.
The NRDC has concluded the majority of stormwater-related contamination is the result of unregulated runoff. In fact, according to the Chesapeake Assessment Scenario Tool (CAST), stormwater from unregulated areas deposits 1.5 times as much nitrogen to the Chesapeake Bay than regulated areas, with numbers rising every year. The increase in nitrogen has led the NRDC to pose an important question; with most stormwater-related pollution coming from unregulated sources, how are we implementing a successful Bay restoration program?
The solution is proactive stormwater management and environmental stewardship at the municipal, property manager and citizen levels.
Municipalities: Resource Allocation
The NRDC found that all states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed utilize most stormwater-related tools and resources in regulated areas. While this pattern is understandable, as regulations provide clear and enforceable stormwater guidelines, redistributing resources to include unregulated sites could reduce overall stormwater-related Bay pollution. It is unreasonable to place all water quality improvement expectations on regulated regions. These regions are not the only stormwater pollution producers and in many cases, unregulated areas can introduce more pollutants than regulated areas.
By allocating resources into areas with no stormwater implementations, simpler, less-cost changes can be made to increase overall stormwater quality by tackling the NRDC called "low-hanging fruit." Refocusing resources to areas with little to no stormwater regulations can lead to overall runoff quality improvements with lower costs across the region, rather than just in regulated areas.
Property Manager: Proactive Engagement
Property managers and developers of regulated and unregulated industries should be proactive in implementing stormwater pollution prevention efforts. Recent environmental changes in legislation at local, state, and federal levels show a trend toward more stringent stormwater regulations, emphasizing green infrastructure in the future. Before mandating occurs, implementing stormwater management practices prepares properties for these changes, giving them more time to prepare while showing environmental stewardship.
Green stormwater installations and retrofits, including green roofs, bioretention cells, and pervious pavement, slow the movement of water and allow the natural process of infiltration to remove toxins before runoff reaches local waterways. Proactive implementation of these stormwater measures throughout the Bay watershed can help restore the natural hydrologic cycle of the area and limit pollution introduction. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay launched a new Businesses for the Bay program in 2016 created "to encourage businesses to take voluntary, innovative and measurable actions that improve water quality and the health of Chesapeake lands, rivers, and streams, and to increase understanding of the valuable role business members play in environmental restoration." One member, the Luck Companies, installed impervious surfaces throughout their corporate campus and collected their stormwater runoff to irrigation. Nearly 5 million gallons were collected in a single year, showing the impact a single business or facility's efforts can have.
Citizens: Lawn Maintenance
It may seem like a daunting task to try and help protect the Chesapeake Bay as an individual. However, small efforts citizens employ in their own lives can have significant impacts. For example, replace turf grass with native trees, shrubs, and groundcover to reestablish native wildlife, restore habitats, reduce the needs and expenses of traditional lawn maintenance, including mowing and fertilizing, and allow the vegetation to absorb precipitation. This style of landscaping can absorb as much as 14 times more rainfall than traditional lawns.
If you would rather keep your grass lawn, limiting fertilizer use and never fertilizing before it rains will benefit the Chesapeake. Fertilizer is one of the largest pollution sources, introducing excessive nitrogen and phosphorus into the Bay, leading to algal blooms and fish kills. Picking up pet waste is another way to reduce excessive nutrient pollution, as well as bacterial outbreaks.
Stormwater from urban development is the only Chesapeake Bay pollution source that has continued to increase over the past 30 years. As residents of the watershed, we must have environmental stewardship to protect our communities and environment from stormwater pollution, allowing future generations to access clean drinking and recreational water. Let the yellow perch remind us of the importance of stormwater management.