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Toward a Chesapeake Basin Program - Spring 2009 Issue

(by James Tierney, Assistant Commissioner for Water Resources)

Water quality is dependent upon what is happening in the upland watershed basin. This "land-water" connection is the reason why water professionals support the "watershed approach" to restoring and maintaining water quality and aquatic habitat.

Increasingly, we are focusing attention on the "air-water" connection, as well. The deposition of smokestack contaminants and nutrients is a serious problem. Toxic mercury that has led to so many fish consumption warnings is rooted almost entirely in air pollution. Nitrogen air deposition from combustion and farm sources is a very significant contributor to marine and estuary algae blooms and low oxygen "dead zones." In fact, 31 percent of New York waters that are in violation of water quality standards are contaminated almost entirely by air pollutants.

Given all these interconnections, my hope is that the US Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake "Bay" program will evolve into a comprehensive "Basin" program. Merely focusing on the Bay, or just on problems that affect the Bay, is not enough. Efforts that help address problems specific to the Susquehanna and Chemung Basin headwaters are needed as part of a true water quality and eco-system partnership. In New York, that means the Chesapeake program should pay serious attention to agricultural environmental management, flood mitigation, wetland construction, nutrient and sediment removal.

For its part, New York has actively responded to the Bay's nitrogen problem. New York has established and is implementing its "Tributary Strategy," which includes the implementation of nitrogen treatment at Binghamton's wastewater plant and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation's successful effort to optimize nitrogen treatment at basin sewage plants without adding costly new treatment technology. Key to this effort has been the Upper Susquehanna Coalition's great work to protect and build wetlands.

New York has adopted the "California" car with its lower nitrogen emissions; put in place strict controls on smokestack nitrogen emissions of nitrogen oxides, with even more stringent regulatory controls being evaluated at present; and submitted legislation to mandate the use of very low phosphorus lawn fertilizer and dishwashing detergent. Our comprehensive Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit covers farms with 200 or more cows and the state agriculture agency has a very substantial Agricultural Environmental Management program to address pollution from non-CAFO farms. Our stormwater and sediment controls are high quality and, unlike many other states, include post-construction management practices to address polluted runoff, sedimentation and flooding.

As they say, "the proof is in the pudding." If the waters entering the severely impaired Chesapeake Bay instead were of the same quality as the water leaving New York - there would be no water quality problem in the Bay. This is a point of pride for New Yorkers and a reason why we thank NYWEA's members for helping us in keeping the waters clean.

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