Bay Journal

Chlorophyll standards a hard sell for James River

  • By Karl Blankenship on May 01, 2005
  • Comments are closed for this article.

Virginia has enacted water quality standards that will force sharp nutrient and sediment reductions from most of its own rivers—and the rest of the Bay watershed—to help clean up its portion of the Bay. But the State Water Control Board, which adopted the standards at its March meeting, still faces a key decision about standards for the state’s largest Bay tributary—the James River.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has proposed a standard for chlorophyll a—a measure of algae in the water—which it contends will reduce the risk of harmful algae blooms, promote the growth of algae species preferred by fish and clear the water for underwater grasses.

Critics, primarily local governments and wastewater authorities, say the standard appears to accomplish little more than slightly altering the river’s brown-green tint—at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. “The chlorophyll standard would require a huge amount of additional nitrogen and phosphorus reductions,” said Chris Pomeroy, an attorney representing the Virginia Association of Municipal Wastewater Agencies. “Those are real expenditures by real people. Yet at the same time, we don’t see what the benefits would be.”

He said the chlorophyll standard appeared to be the largest single reason that the cleanup costs for the James River jumped from an estimated $300 million for a tributary strategy adopted in 2000, to several billion dollars to meet new nutrient and sediment cleanup goals.

State officials say a variety of factors contributed to the increase, including major revisions in the ways costs were estimated.

Chlorophyll a was one of three criteria agreed upon by all of the jurisdictions in the watershed in 2003—the other two were dissolved oxygen and water clarity. These criteria are to be adopted as enforceable water quality standards by all jurisdictions touching the Bay or its tidal waters: Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

When those standards are achieved—which will take huge nutrient and sediment reductions—the Bay will be removed from the EPA’s list of “impaired” waters, which is the restoration goal.

Nutrient reductions for most of the watershed are driven primarily by the dissolved oxygen standards, which establish the minimum amounts of oxygen needed in different parts of the Bay to support the fish, shellfish and other organisms that live in those areas.

Those levels are based on clear-cut research showing that if that amount of oxygen isn’t present, things begin to die.

Similarly, water clarity standards are based on research that shows what percent of sunlight must reach underwater plants if they are to grow. If there’s not enough light, the plants will die, or won’t grow at all.

Establishing chlorophyll a criteria proved more problematic. Numeric concentrations for the amount of chlorophyll that would be allowed in the water hit snags during the scientific peer review.

Instead of a number, the final criteria only said that chlorophyll concentrations “shall not exceed levels that result in undesirable consequences.” That includes reduced water clarity, low dissolved oxygen, proliferation of bloom-causing or harmful algae species, or even aesthetically undesirable conditions.

In issuing criteria for the Bay, the EPA said it “strongly encourages” states to develop numerical chlorophyll a criteria for tidal waters if excess algae concentrations were expected even after dissolved oxygen and water clarity criteria were attained. Background information for the criteria suggests chlorophyll levels are linked to various adverse impacts for water with different salinity levels in the Bay.

The James has no dissolved oxygen problems of its own, and most of the nutrients flowing down the river go into the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, they have little impact on the mainstem Bay’s overall water quality. Much of its water clarity problem is caused by sediment.

Wastewater treatment plant operators contend the EPA and the DEQ have not demonstrated clear environmental benefits from the chlorophyll standards to justify such expensive reductions. “We know how much oxygen fish and other critters need to breathe,” Pomeroy said. “We know how much light a piece of grass needs to grow. But with chlorophyll, there is no magic number.”

Concerns were raised by some lawmakers. State Sen. Martin Williams, of Newport News, wrote DEQ Secretary Robert Burnley that the new standards “will result in significantly higher sewer bills for families and high compliance costs for manufacturing and agricultural industries.” He said it was imperative the standards “be justified by tangible benefits to the environment and the public.”

Alan Pollock, who heads the DEQ’s Office of Water Quality Programs, acknowledged it was more difficult for people to understand the chlorophyll issue. “People seem to understand the oxygen connection. Everyone knows that fish have to breathe,” he said. “But our scientists tell us there is an increasing frequency of harmful blooms in the rivers.” Indeed, scientists said blooms in recent years occur more often and persist longer, including blooms of harmful species such as Mycrocystis, a potential toxin producer.

In particular, they say, blooms of dinoflagellates have become more common on the river. Dinoflagellates are a small form of algae which generally are not desired as food by other species. They also live near the surface, blocking sunlight and outcompeting other, more desirable, forms of algae.

At the request of lawmakers and local government officials, the EPA’s Bay Program Office is examining computer model estimates to determine what chlorophyll levels would result from varying levels of nutrient reductions.

Agency officials, though, say the criteria must be based on the best scientific information available—not the cost. “It’s EPA’s view that you don’t derive criteria based on what you can, or can’t, reduce,” said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office.

He said the chlorophyll standard was based on “multiple lines of evidence” linking elevated chlorophyll levels to ill effects. He also said chlorophyll reductions are needed to meet water clarity goals. Both algae and sediment contribute to the James’ murky water. But, he said, it is generally less costly to clear the water through nutrient reductions than by controlling sediment.

Final action on the James standards could come at the board’s June meeting.

VA 2nd state to adopt new water quality standards

Virginia in March became the second state, after Delaware, to adopt new dissolved oxygen, water clarity and chlorophyll standards for the Bay and most of its tidal tributaries.

The standards are aimed at achieving water quality conditions needed by fish, underwater grasses and other Bay dwellers. They replace old standards which in some cases were unachievable, and in others not protective enough of aquatic species.

Maryland and the District of Columbia, the other two jurisdictions with tidal waters, are expected to adopt new standards later this year.

While the bulk of the nutrient reductions needed from the watershed’s 64,000-square miles are required to achieve water quality in Maryland’s part of the Bay, where dissolved oxygen conditions are worst, Virginia also needs upstream nutrient reductions to achieve its standards.

“We can’t meet the standards ourselves,” said Alan Pollock, head of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Water Quality Programs. “We need to have nutrient reductions through the rest of the watershed.”

The adopted standards affect all of Virginia’s tidal waters except the James and York rivers. The State Water Control Board postponed action on the James standards until June to resolve a debate over proposed chlorophyll a standards.

There is no debate over the York standards, but they were delayed because they were in the same regulations as the James.

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and Executive Director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Karl Blankenship

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