Department of Environmental Science and Technology soil and water quality scientist secures $3.2M for EPA collaboration to improve Chesapeake Bay water quality

Members of the Watershed Stewards Academy construct a rain garden in Severna Park, Md., on April 10, 2010.

Image Credit: Photo by Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

August 4, 2022
By Laura Wormuth

Restoration goals for the Chesapeake Bay cannot be realized overnight; it takes years of coordination, cooperation, and compromise to induce the changes needed to positively affect water quality. Gurpal Toor, professor, extension specialist, and associate chair in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR), secured an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant for $3.2M to continue working under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to deliver research-based science to the Chesapeake Bay Program regarding agriculture and its contribution to water quality issues.

“The partnership between UMD and federal and state agencies to help Chesapeake Bay restoration allows us to use science to guide the policy-making in our backyards,” said Toor, who leads a project team of three faculty members. “It’s a complex project with huge ramifications for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, and the university has a long history of working with the EPA.”

The goal of the project, with funding in effect through 2027, is to tackle water quality goals by understanding agricultural and other nonpoint source inputs of nutrient pollution like nitrogen and phosphorus, and to a lesser degree, sediments. Agriculture is a critically important component of food production for 18+ million inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that includes parts of six states -- Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia -- and the entire District of Columbia. At the same time, agriculture is also a primary source of nutrient pollution in the Bay. “Most of the project efforts are focused on agriculture, with a side conversation about urban and other nonpoint sources, but it’s really about the nutrients and how the transport of nutrients from land affects water quality in the Bay,” said Toor. “Having this project at AGNR allows us to demonstrate our familiarity with our local resources and allows us to provide research-based science to help make policy decisions that take our farmers into consideration.”

The work encompasses several objectives that will support the implementation of best management practices and provide better data inputs into models that inform programs and policies related to water quality goals for the Bay and its tributaries throughout the watershed region.

“One of the EPA’s main goals is protecting water quality, and the best tool they have is the Chesapeake Bay model to help understand agricultural nutrient loads from different places in the watershed,” Toor said.

“We want to improve agricultural model input data…to more accurately represent current agricultural contributions of nutrients and sediments to the tidal Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries,” said Mark Dubin, Senior Agricultural Advisor on the project. Dubin devises research projects in partnership with other universities and agencies to develop more robust and accurate information on input sources and their variability to close identified gaps in the model. A member of the project since 2006, Dubin also assists agencies and partners with developing approved methods to track, report, and verify implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs) to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution.  

“There are a lot of complicated factors in tracking nutrient inputs, so the model has to consider those factors,” said Toor. “There’s variability in the landscape, and the model tries to capture that variability.”

Soper Farm in Carroll County, Md
Soper Farm in Carroll County, Md., has implemented cattle exclusion fencing and walkways through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and a forested stream buffer on Little Morgan Run. (Photo by Alicia Pimental/Chesapeake Bay Program)

The Chesapeake Bay model informs each state’s Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) regarding how much nitrogen and phosphorus from nonpoint sources like agriculture and urban stormwater, is allowed to run off into tributary waters. This amount is the region’s Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, and each region/state has a target TMDL determined by the numerous factors in the Chesapeake Bay model.

Decisions on regional TMDLs and BMPs, like field buffers or cover crops, are informed through a comprehensive collaboration by the Chesapeake Bay Program Agricultural Workgroup (AgWG). This group of stakeholders, made up of county, state and federal government agencies, non-governmental organizations, industry representatives, and university scientists, provides expertise in agriculture management, scientific research, programs, and policies, says Loretta Collins, Coordinator of the AgWG.

“The AgWG provides expertise on the latest findings in research related to best management practices in agriculture and identifies areas where more needs to be understood,” said Collins, who has been a part of the project for over five years.

“We have a unique thing in that we coordinate all agriculture activities around the Chesapeake Bay, so the workgroup discusses things happening in the federal landscape, and what things are on the horizon that could potentially be affecting farmers,” said Toor. Then, the workgroup is given the problem, members discuss the issue with subject matter experts, and the panel makes recommendations and produces a report, which is escalated to the EPA’s Water Quality Goal Implementation Team, Toor said. “It’s all a matter of compromise – how can we get the cleanest environment while still allowing for farms and small businesses to make a profit.”

While regulatory decisions are made at the federal level, local Bay jurisdictions must take the initiative to honor the original 2014 watershed agreement to take the recommended steps to reduce nutrient runoff in the watershed. Maryland offers many incentive programs for farmers to adopt BMPs for better water quality, but other regions have a less vested interest due to their proximity to the Bay.

For the past three years. Ruth Cassilly, Nonpoint Source Policy Analyst on the project, has advised each Bay jurisdiction on potential ways to decrease pollution sources to meet their TMDL target. “I play a role in facilitating the development and use of precision conservation and other technical tools that analyze nutrient loads and sources, allowing stakeholders to target best management practices to maximize nutrient and sediment reduction,” said Cassilly. “My work is providing stakeholders with the information they need to more effectively leverage limited resources to achieve maximum pollution reduction results.”

Improving Bay water quality has several benefits, not only for Maryland, but the surrounding watershed as well. Home to populations of highly sought blue crabs, oysters, and multiple fish species, the Bay provides both work and recreational opportunities for the Mid-Atlantic region.

“I think most everyone working on these efforts understands that things begin at the local level,” said Collins. “Folks need to care and contribute to the improvement and maintenance of their local streams and rivers, which will, in turn, benefit the Bay.”