Article | July 10, 2013

Bay Best Practices: New Plans And Resources To Improve The Health Of The Chesapeake Bay


By Jeff Moeller and Stephanie Costello of the Water Environment Research Foundation

There seems to be a diet for almost everything these days—from low-calorie to high-protein, there’s a plan that can get anyone into shape. In keeping with this trend, U.S. EPA has put the Chesapeake Bay on what they’re calling a “pollution diet”—cutting back on nutrients and sediment in an effort to improve the overall health of the Bay. And while it might not lead to slimmer waistlines, it will lead to healthier shorelines, which is something we all can benefit from.

As with any diet, it won’t come without hard work and persistence—it’s definitely not a quick-fix plan. EPA hopes that neighboring jurisdictions can put all of the necessary measures in place to turn the Bay around by 2025. It all starts with the Chesapeake Bay watershed-wide TMDL rule requiring the reduction of pollutant loads by 60%, based on the levels that were seen in 2009.

It took several years for the Bay TMDL to come together, and it’s still a work in progress. The original framework was based on specific water-quality goals, as well as input from surrounding states and the District of Columbia, all of which were required to submit preliminary watershed implementation plans in late 2010 for how they would meet these goals. The plans have already been through a couple of phases and are expected to continue to evolve.

Now, two years after the initial release of the TMDL, the jurisdictions are checking in and assessing how their plans are faring. EPA and several other federal agencies are also assessing major milestones from their end, reviewing the latest science and decision-support tools as well as TMDL effectiveness. The goal is to have the third phase of all implementation plans in place by 2017, detailing restoration efforts to ensure that goals are met.

While 2017 may seem like a long way off—or for that matter 2025—addressing the level of nutrients and sediment in a waterbody is a complex challenge. To start with, nutrients are naturally present and necessary for a balanced ecosystem, so it’s not just a matter eliminating them altogether. There’s also the added intricacy of each waterbody being different. Meaning, what might work for one site and source might not for another, and finding the most effective practices for a given situation and contaminant is key to developing functioning watershed implementation plans.     

The degree of planning necessary for developing the most appropriate strategies requires access to the right tools and information, allowing jurisdictions to weigh all of the options out there and to select the best ones for their unique situation. The International Stormwater BMP Database (, managed by the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), provides stormwater managers and others with helpful resources as they try to map out exactly how they will reach their load-reduction targets.

The Database, an open-access website, houses the world’s largest collection of field data on the performance of stormwater best management practices (BMPs). And considering that stormwater runoff is a significant cause of impairment in the Bay, carrying with it the nutrients and sediment that the new TMDL is targeting, that means reliable information on stormwater BMP performance is critical to meeting the Bay TMDL. In short, better stormwater management practices are a big part of sticking to EPA’s diet.

When the BMP Database was initially conceived more than 15 years ago, it was developed to help improve the design, selection, and performance assessment of BMPs, and ultimately lead to better water quality management. And so far, it has served this purpose well. It started as a centralized hub for information sharing on the practices that various stormwater managers were using and grew to include comprehensive analysis of how well different techniques are at removing a variety of pollutants.

Today, the site offers more than 530 sets of data on BMPs with over 300,000 water quality records, as well as tools, guidance, and summaries of performance. It also includes an interactive mapping tool to pinpoint specific study locations and a search function to find information on given sites or to pull statistics on a BMP or pollutant category. All of this makes it easier to assess the potential performance of BMPs before actually implementing them. For instance, someone looking to find out which practices are effective at removing total phosphorus or how a certain BMP will impact total suspended solids loadings can look to the Database for assistance.

These resources by themselves could help Bay jurisdictions pinpoint what’s working for others and apply it to their own work plans, but WERF, with the support of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and a team of researchers from Wright Water Engineers and Geosyntec Consultants, has taken it a step further. They recently developed a specific portion of the BMP Database that is dedicated to the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding areas (

The Chesapeake Bay Research Portal, as it is called, is a clearinghouse to collect, store, and evaluate stormwater management practices related to the Bay watershed. The Database, and this section in particular, complements the work of expert review panels that have been formed to look at current science and estimate the effectiveness of various nutrient and sediment controls in the Bay. The portal already contains more than 65 BMP studies, including studies within the Bay as well as those from nearby watersheds with similar climate, soil, and topography—and it is expected to grow with continued monitoring of BMPs implemented in the Bay.

In addition, information from the entire Database has been analyzed to provide a snapshot of national BMP performance based on influent and effluent concentrations.  This analysis is compared to results in the Chesapeake Bay region in a recent WERF-funded report,  BMP Performance Summary: Chesapeake Bay and Related Areas, to assess whether there are any significant regional differences for pollutants of concern. The comparison provides stormwater managers with information on how factors like climate, land use, and BMP design characteristics that are unique to the Chesapeake Bay watershed may or may not influence BMP performance.

Just as traditional diet plans spread quickly if they are successful, the Chesapeake Bay’s plan will likely catch on as well. What’s happening in the Bay might make its way to other waterbodies that are struggling with their health—from the Mississippi River Basin to the Gulf Coast. The key to making sure this diet isn’t just another fad is making sure the most effective practices and plans are in place.

This is the first article in a two-part series on nutrient and sediment reduction in the Chesapeake Bay and findings from the International Stormwater BMP Database. Next Article: “Bay Best Practices: What’s Working to Clean Up the Chesapeake”