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Cleanup efforts prepare Chesapeake Bay for climate change

News anchor sits at a news desk in a pink suit jacket across from a man with short hair. They are in the middle of a conversation.
Elijah Hedrick
VPM News Focal Point
How efforts to clean up the Chesapeake are preparing the bay for climate change.

Virginia will miss its 2025 goals to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, but experts say its efforts to address pollution will help prepare the nation’s largest estuary for the impact of climate change.

Virginia will miss its 2025 goals to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, but experts say its efforts to address pollution will help prepare the nation’s largest estuary for the impact of climate change. VPM News Focal Point anchor Angie Miles spoke with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s policy advisor to hear what’s being done to protect the Bay. 


ANGIE MILES: The nation's largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, runs through Virginia and touches its shoreline on the mainland and Eastern shore. The bay is a rich source of wildlife and seafood, but efforts to clean and restore it are failing to meet goals set by civic and government leaders. Joining us is Jay Ford with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect the waterway. Thanks for being here, Jay.

JAY FORD: Thank you so much for having me.

ANGIE MILES: Now, we hear the term Chesapeake Bay, we use that term, but do we really know where it is or what it is? Could you give us the distinction between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay?

JAY FORD: Sure. The easy answer is when you cross the barrier at Virginia Beach or the Southern point of the Eastern shore, you're in the Atlantic Ocean. The more, I think, the longer answer, and the one that gets to why the Chesapeake Bay is so unique and needs our help in protecting it is, the Bay is much more shallow and much more constricted than the ocean. And so, when you think about the average depth of the Bay, it's only about 22 feet across the entirety of the Bay. And because of that, all of the things that are happening throughout the bay watershed can have this enhanced impact on the water quality. So, when nutrients come into the bay or sediment, they affect things like clarity and algal blooms, and the subsequent consequences much more than they would in the immensity, that is the ocean.

ANGIE MILES: What is endangering the bay? What are the concerns?

JAY FORD: Sure. You know, we really like to think of it in three main areas that are impacting the bay, and that's storm water, wastewater and runoff from agriculture as well. And so, what that means is, we have things like nitrogen and phosphorus and sediments that are making their way into the waterways. They can cause algal blooms that reduce oxygen, that threatens species in there. It can lead to dangerous swimming conditions, and generally, it deteriorates the health of the bay. In addition to that, climate change is having a significant impact on the Chesapeake Bay, and that's because things like rainfall increasing, temperatures increasing, and sea level rise, making its way further into our communities and pulling back potential pollutants, are all making it harder to restore our bay.

ANGIE MILES: And when storms get more frequent and more intense, that also plays a role. I want to ask you about this particular storm. I spent some time recently on the Eastern shore, and a friend shared with me this memento, if you will, called "Tidal Surge," of a storm that happened back in 1962. You know, something about this storm.

JAY FORD: I do. The Ash Wednesday Storm in 1962 in many ways, is a turning point for coastal Virginia. That storm had impacts that ranged from Virginia Beach and up and down the Eastern shore, entire fisheries were turned on their head, really, overnight as a result of that storm. And the way we chose to develop in some areas were impacted. And it, to this day, serves as really an impactful reminder of how quickly something can turn in the coastal ecosystem, and that a storm can have these devastating impacts on a community, on our ecosystems, on our culture. And that is why, I think, in many coastal communities, we're so focused right now on the concept of building resilience and adaptation to climate change because we realize, all of these climate impacts exacerbate storms in a way that has always been dangerous, but is so much more so now that we have warmer waters, that we have these rain bomb events. And so, making sure that our communities are able to handle this excess water coming up our shores, coming out of the sky, the additional heat is really key, because as that storm highlighted, the economic cultural impacts can just be transformational.

ANGIE MILES: You and many other partners are working on efforts to restore, to preserve, to protect. Talk about some of the work that's going on and who some of the partners are.

JAY FORD: Sure. We work across the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, and our work ranges from direct assistance to farmers, where we're helping them to get practices on the field to help reduce the nutrients running off their fields. And a lot of that work dovetails nicely with climate work. For example, we encourage people to plant forested buffers along our streams, that helps trap the nutrients, trap the sediment, but it also helps steel with waters that are coming up the stream. Trees have been shown to be an effective mitigation for sea level rise, as well as increased storm water. So, you get dual benefits from practices like that. We also work with municipalities all around the state on things like wastewater, creative designs to help deal with storm water from these massive rain events which carry everything that's on our streets down into the waters. And more and more now on the concept of resilience and adaptation. And we are really focused on what is known as nature-based design. And so, we're looking for ways that we can integrate natural systems into the lived environment so they can help absorb water, help filter nutrients, and provide coastal habitat in a way that will migrate with the locality, so they don't have to keep coming back with more concrete and creating the same headache over and over again.

ANGIE MILES: So coastal residents know about these things, and they care. People who love nature care. Why should other people be concerned about what's happening on the bay?

JAY FORD: Well, one, the bay is a major economic driver for the entire state of Virginia. You can go all the way up into the mountains, you're still in the bay watershed, and people go out to take advantage of those, of the fishing and tourism opportunities on those tributaries, and it's why their health is critically important. But again, the bay is also sort of in many ways, a placeholder for how we treat our natural resources across the state. Because of its unique interstate work plan, we model a lot of the things that need to happen for larger questions like how we deal with climate change. And so, the work that is happening on the bay has direct relevance to people, because we focus on things like reducing emissions, which helps lead to better air quality, across the entire state. And again, making sure that there are forested buffers and nature-based design upstream as well as downstream. So, the work that happens on the Chesapeake to restore the Chesapeake Bay really has compounding effects across the entire state for folks.

ANGIE MILES: Advocacy is important for you as well. Can you talk a little bit as we close about public policy, about legislation? What is helping and what is hindering your efforts?

JAY FORD: Sure. The biggest thing that we focus on each year is the budget. And that's because that's where the rubber meets the road. You can have all of the aspirational legislation you want, but if the General Assembly is not willing to put the money there to support this work, it's not going to happen. And so, we've been really lucky in the last couple of general assemblies. We've seen historic funding levels for Chesapeake Bay Restoration, particularly, in the area of agricultural best management practices, which we have never fully funded in Virginia's history until recently. So, we're very hopeful that those investments will start to pay dividends and help move the needle, towards a more restored bay in the coming years. Additionally, the area of climate change and resilience, there's a lot of work to be done there. So, we've worked on a number of pieces of legislation in the last few years that are trying to encourage localities, encourage the state to focus on this nature-based design, and get our communities better prepared for when the big storm comes. So, it not only has a natural resource benefit, but it has a huge economic impact. It is way more costly for the state of Virginia to try and build back after a catastrophic event than it is to make investments on the front end. So, our communities are more resilient to these storms and climate impacts.

ANGIE MILES: An ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure.

JAY FORD: Absolutely.

ANGIE MILES: All right. Thank you so much, Jay Ford, for joining us.


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