Cleaning Up The Chesapeake Bay Would Bring $130 Billion In Annual Economic Benefits

Birds feed near the New Point lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay near Mathews, Va., Monday, Sept. 14, 2009. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RON EDMONDS
Birds feed near the New Point lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay near Mathews, Va., Monday, Sept. 14, 2009. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RON EDMONDS

Fully implementing an EPA policy that aims to clean up the Chesapeake Bay would result in billions of dollars in economic benefits, according to a new report.

The peer-reviewed report, published Monday by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, analyzed the economic benefits of implementing the EPA’s Clean Water Blueprint for the Chesapeake Bay, a plan that sets a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can enter the bay each year, with the potential of cutting this pollution by 20–25 percent.

The group started with the 2009 environmental conditions of seven kinds of land in the bay region: agricultural land, forest, wetland, open water, urban open space, “other” urban spaces (such as paved areas) and “other,” a category that included mostly barren land. Then, the researchers calculated what the productivity of these land types would be if the Clean Water Blueprint were fully implemented, using economic studies to figure out what the monetary benefit of the land would be under the plan.

The report found that the economic benefits of the restored Chesapeake Bay would total nearly $130 billion each year — an annual increase of more than $22 billion from the $107 billion the bay’s ecosystem services are valued at currently. If the Blueprint were to be scrapped entirely, the annual benefits of the land would decrease by $5.6 billion.

CREDIT: Chesapeake Bay Foundation
CREDIT: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Improvements under the Blueprint “range from obvious, such as increased productivity in commercial and recreational fisheries, to the opaque, such as increased productivity, per acre, of forest and farmland, and the seemingly obscure, such as the increase in property values generated by healthier forests and waterways,” the report states. “No matter how easy or difficult to see or measure, all of these economic benefits provided by ‘ecosystem services’ are relevant to consider as part of the value secured by the Blueprint.”

The bay’s iconic blue crab is a creature that stands to benefit from a cleaner bay. The crab is vulnerable to pollution and changes in the availability of underwater grass, which can occur due to warming waters and pollution. And the crab isn’t the only commercially-harvested marine creature that would benefit from cleaner water — oysters and striped bass, too, play a significant role in the bay’s economy.

The Chesapeake Bay has long been plagued by oxygen-free dead zones that kill marine life, due largely to the large quantities of agricultural pesticides that enter the bay from surrounding farms. During a press conference Monday, William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, referenced the major algae outbreak in Toledo, Ohio earlier this year as an example of what pollution from agricultural and urban runoff can cause.

“Think of a major metropolitan area in which the residents are told not only that they can’t drink their water — they also have to avoid any contact with the water that’s coming out of their faucet,” Baker said. That dangerous algae is something he said he doesn’t want to see in the Chesapeake Bay.

The EPA’s Clean Water Blueprint was created at the request of the six Chesapeake Bay states and the District of Columbia after numerous other attempts to clean up the bay failed. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has long argued that the Blueprint is necessary to solve the bay’s environmental problems, but with this report, it now argues that a cleanup is a smart economic investment for the region, as well.

“The conclusion is clear: The region’s environmental and economic health will improve when we fully implement the Blueprint,” economist Spencer Phillips, who co-authored the report, said in a statement. “The clean-up plan was designed with the understanding that all people and communities in the watershed can contribute to making our waterways cleaner, and that everyone will benefit when pollution is reduced. Our analysis confirms this.”

The Cleanwater Blueprint has faced significant opposition, however. In February, 21 Attorneys General submitted an amicus brief that aimed to strike down the Cleanwater Blueprint, arguing that the EPA plan puts states’ rights in jeopardy and that, if the plan is given the go-ahead in the Chesapeake Bay, watersheds like the Mississippi could be next on the EPA’s cleanup list.

The Farm Bureau also opposes the cleanup plan because, as a Farm Bureau spokesperson told ThinkProgress in April, the plan “eliminates state flexibility to make their own cleanup decisions, or to modify their plans based on new technologies or new information.” A September 2013 court ruling found the Farm Bureau’s claims to be overblown, however, and the EPA maintains that it’s up to the states to determine how to implement the limits under the Blueprint.

Still, other states and cities have expressed their support for the Blueprint. In April, major U.S. cities — New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco — filed an amicus brief in support of the cleanup plan, calling it an “equitable and effective approach” for cleaning up the bay.