Bay Journal

Executive order, 2-year deadlines boost efforts to clean up Bay

The object of new actions at the Executive Council meeting is to hold states accountable for their commitments

  • By Karl Blankenship on June 01, 2009
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The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson talks about President Barack Obama's executive order targeting the Chesapeake Bay as, left to right, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine look on.  (Dave Harp)

With President Barack Obama ordering stepped-up federal participation in Chesapeake restoration efforts, and governors promising to achieve-and be held accountable for-short-term nutrient reduction goals, Bay cleanup leaders say they have reached a turning point for restoring the Chesapeake and its tributaries

At the May Chesapeake Executive Council meeting, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the "full weight" of the federal government was poised to assist-and require-accelerated Chesapeake restoration efforts.

An executive order signed by the president the day of the meeting called the Chesapeake a "national treasure." As part of the more aggressive federal role it outlined, Jackson said the EPA was planning "to make full use of our regulatory authorities and laws to improve protection of the Bay and its rivers."

The meeting took place outside George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, and as the muddy Potomac River flowed in the background, officials acknowledged that the work to clean up the Chesapeake is not likely be completed for another 16 years.

"Bay cleanup deadlines in the past have been set and, as you know, missed," said Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the council chair. "Today we present you a new end restoration date: no later than 2025."

No past cleanup goal has been put so far into the future-in 1987, the council promised to restore the Bay by 2000, and in 2000, it promised to complete the job by 2010. The cleanup effort has been heavily criticized in recent years for failing to show significant improvements in the Bay's health since the state-federal Bay Program partnership was created in 1983.

The Executive Council, is the top policy-making panel for the cleanup and it includes the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

Kaine said the new goal was more realistic than those in the past, adding that some states may achieve their goals sooner as new technologies become available. "The important words are 'no later than,'?" he said.

And, Kaine said, the end date represents an acceleration of efforts. Only last year, estimates put the cleanup date at 2040 or beyond.

As a sort of down payment toward meeting the goal, each of the seven jurisdictions in the watershed-Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, New York and the District of Columbia-committed to the first in a series of two-year cleanup milestones, as each promised to achieve a specific nutrient reduction goal by the end of 2011.

Taken together, the jurisdictions pledged to achieve 15.8 million pounds of nitrogen reductions and 1.1 million pounds of phosphorus reductions during that time.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are considered the main contributors to poor Bay water quality because they spur algae blooms, which block sunlight critical to underwater grasses that support crabs, fish and waterfowl. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that depletes the water of oxygen.

At the previous rate of reductions, the states would have achieved only an 8.9 million pound nitrogen reduction, and a 586,681 pound phosphorus reduction by 2011, according to Bay Program estimates. Officials said the new milestones represent a 77 percent increase in the rate of nitrogen reductions, and a 79 percent increase in the rate of phosphorus reductions.

In addition, the jurisdictions identified what specific actions were needed to achieve the goals, and how much they would cost. By the end of 2011, the watershedwide tab would be nearly $2.4 billion.

If the goals are not met, the governors said they would be held accountable by implementing backup measures, which were included in a two-page description of each state's goals.

But most of the backup actions were vague. For example, Virginia said additional options included "funding policies or programs designed to further encourage pollution reduction from agricultural lands, developed lands and air sources."

Maryland's were the most specific, including requirements for nitrogen offsets for new septic systems, and for each acre of new development to be offset by retrofitting 2 acres of pre-1985 development with stormwater controls. "I don't think you've ever seen that in print before," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. "Many of them are controversial."

Council members said the short-term milestones would provide more public accountability than ever about whether each state was fulfilling its promises.

"Make no mistake, today is a turning point for the restoration of the Bay and its rivers," Kaine said. "A turning point with much work to be done, but a turning point nonetheless. We as a council stand before you, and we pledge to accelerate the rate of restoration."

According to Bay Program figures, an estimated 259.4 million pounds of nitrogen enters the Chesapeake each year. If the new milestones are met, that would be reduced to 243.6 million pounds by the end of 2011, instead of 250.5 million at the current rate. The goal is 175 million pounds.

Those estimates, though, stem from an old computer model. When a new version of the Bay Program Watershed Model comes online this summer, it will almost certainly show that more nutrient reductions will be needed than are currently estimated.

In fact, the milestones themselves may change with the model update. The amount of nutrient control practices outlined in the milestones to meet the 2011 nutrient target were based on estimates in the old model. But because of changes in the new model, meeting the same nutrient reduction mark will likely require more actions than were promised-that's because changes that make model projections more realistic tend to make control actions less effective.

"The new model is going to estimate a lower level of nutrient reductions for most of the states," said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA Bay Program Office. In that case, he said the EPA is likely to evaluate progress for the initial milestones based on whether states implement all of the actions they promised. "The heart and soul of what we've got is the commitment for the installation of a specific amount of practices."

Roy Hoagland, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the milestones were a step forward and increased accountability in nutrient reduction efforts. But, he added, "the rate of acceleration that the milestones reflect are not ambitious enough."

Some actions, such as sewage treatment plant upgrades that are already funded and are under construction but will come online in the next two years were counted as part of the acceleration, he noted. "The states should take credit for these reductions as they occur but they should not include them in measuring 'acceleration,'?" he said.

Hoagland said he was disappointed that the milestones were not the "real stretches" states had promised. "The fact that there is a 2025 end date for achieving a reduction goal that was supposed to be met in 2010 shows that the milestones are not the level of reductions people expected."

To get an outside evaluation of where the cleanup effort stands, the council announced that it would contract with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a review. The academy will examine whether the tracking of pollution control activities among states is consistent, reliable and accurate.

The review will also determine whether states are likely to achieve the nutrient goals for the first milestone period with the level of implementation they promised. A peer-reviewed report is to be completed by July 1, 2011.

"It is pretty difficult to assess ourselves, and that is why we felt the need for an independent evaluator," Kaine said.

The pledge for improved accountability was punctuated by EPA Administrator Jackson, who indicated her agency would pursue a more aggressive path to clean the Bay.

The EPA has indicated that it expects interim milestones to be part of a new cleanup plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, that is being developed for the Bay. Jackson said that she expects "tough" discussions with state officials about the consequences that states will face if those milestones are missed.

She also indicated the agency would work to cooperate with states and stakeholders, but would also explore the potential for greater regulatory action that may be needed in the Bay restoration effort.

"We intend to use the Chesapeake Bay Program as a national model, as laboratory of what can happen when we put priority focus on a Bay, on a watershed," Jackson said. "The work done here will supply answers to questions being asked across the country."

The stakes are high, she said. "If we come up short, this may be the last generation of watermen on the Chesapeake Bay."

Executive order calls on federal agencies to lead Bay cleanup

President Barack Obama on May 12 signed the first presidential executive order to target Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts and pledging improved federal cooperation, assistance-and enforcement-to restore the "national treasure."

The executive order says that restoring the Bay will require a renewed commitment to controlling all sources of pollution, conserving lands and restoring habitat, and that "the federal government should lead this effort." It also called for increased research on issues such as fish health and climate change, and for agencies to improve public access to the Bay and its tributaries.

"The president understands and acknowledges that the Bay is a national treasure vital the environment, the local economies and the way of life for millions of Americans," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

The state-federal cleanup effort was launched by President Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 called the Bay a national treasure and committed the federal government to the "long, necessary effort" to restore it.

"But since President Reagan there has been no president that has taken significant action to move Chesapeake Bay efforts forward," said Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. "That is changing today."

The order directs the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior and Transportation to serve on a new Federal Leadership Committee that will be chaired by the EPA. The committee will ensure that the activities of federal agencies are coordinated, and it will develop plans for-and oversee the implementation of-restoration actions. The first plan is due within 120 days.

The order calls on the EPA administrator, after consulting with state agencies, to examine how to make "full use" of Clean Water Act authorities to protect the Bay, such as revising regulations. It calls for strengthening existing permit programs and expanding them "where appropriate."

In addition, the president required that all federal facilities with 10 or more acres of land within the watershed must, "as expeditiously as practicable," implement land management practices to protect the Bay and its tributaries.

The USDA and the EPA were instructed to work together to target the most effective nutrient and sediment control practices within priority watersheds, as identified by the USDA and the EPA.

The order directs agencies to support research on factors affecting water quality, habitat and fish health in the Bay watershed. Fish health has been a particular concern in recent years, as a majority of striped bass suffer from mycobacteriosis, the Shenandoah has had repeated, unexplained fish kills; and intersex fish have been turning up in the Potomac.

Agencies are to conduct research about the impact of climate change on the Bay and its resources, including sea level rise; increasing temperature, acidity and salinity levels; changes in rainfall patterns; and potential impacts to fish, wildlife and their habitats in the Bay and its watershed.

Less than 2 percent of the land around the Bay is open to public access, although the federal government is the single largest owner of land along the Chesapeake-mostly military installations.

The directive calls on all agencies to review the potential for expanding public assess at existing sites on public lands, and opportunities where new access sites could be provided. It also calls for a description of safety and national security issues related to expanded public access at military installations.

In addition, it calls for agencies to identify landscapes and ecosystems in the watershed that merit recognition for their historical, cultural, ecological or scientific values, and options for conserving those areas.

"The executive order is clearly a good, good thing," said Roy Hoagland, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It puts the restoration of the Chesapeake not only on the national agenda, but this president's agenda."

He also praised the executive order for directing the EPA to take a leadership role in the cleanup and to use all of its authority under the Clean Water Act.

At the same time, he said the foundation was not dropping its lawsuit against the EPA. Although the executive order's directions to the agency are "consistent with the requests we have made in the lawsuit," Hoagland said the CBF wanted to see that directives in the order were executed and implemented."

Milestone Actions By State

Each jurisdiction in the Bay watershed committed to achieve a specific nutrient reduction goal by the end of 2011. Here's a look at the goals, some of the key actions to attain them-and their costs-for each jurisdiction.

Maryland

Nutrient Reductions

Nitrogen: 3.75 million pounds

Phosphorus: 193,000 pounds

Sample Actions

  • 460,000 acres of cover crops
  • 145 livestock waste structures
  • 53 poultry waste structures
  • 20,000 acres of urban stormwater retrofits
  • 1,000 acres of public land wetland restoration
  • 740,000 pounds of wastewater nitrogen reductions
  • 39,000 pounds of wastewater phosphorus reductions

Cost: $774 million

Pennsylvania

Nutrient Reductions

Nitrogen: 7.3 million pounds

Phosphorus: 300,000 pounds

Sample Actions

  • 327,599 acres of conservation plans
  • 174,818 acres of late-planted cover crops
  • 19,059 acres of forest buffers
  • 55,659 tons of poultry litter hauled out of watershed
  • 15,065 acres of tree planting
  • 1 million pounds of wastewater nitrogen reductions
  • 215,088 feet of non-urban stream restoration

Cost: $67.5 million

Virginia

Nutrient Reductions

Nitrogen: 3.39 million pounds

Phosphorus: 470,000 pounds

Sample Actions

  • 119,000 acres of cover crops
  • 12,500 acres of reforestation
  • 9,000 acres of stormwater management
  • 10,000 acres of forest buffers
  • 258,000 new acres of nutrient management
  • 13,000 feet of agricultural stream restoration
  • 233,000 pounds of wastewater nitrogen reductions
  • 126,000 pounds of wastewater phosphorus reductions

Cost: $1.2 billion

District of Columbia

Nutrient Reductions

Nitrogen: 159,000 pounds

Phosphorus: Goal attained

Sample Actions

  • 30 acres of trees planted a year
  • 100 rain gardens and 250 rain barrels
  • Convert 2.5 million square feet to green roofs a year
  • Develop and implement a pet waste strategy
  • Restore 2.7 miles of Watts and Pope branches
  • Implement an impervious area- based stormwater fee
  • Ongoing upgrades at Blue Plains Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant

Cost: $266 million

Delaware

Nutrient Reductions

Nitrogen: 292,072 pounds

Phosphorus: 0

Sample Actions

  • 18,600 acres of late cover crops
  • 18,600 acres of early cover crops
  • 55,100 tons of poultry litter transported out of watershed
  • 420 acres of wetland restoration
  • 2,700 acres of forest buffers
  • 200 acres of tree planting
  • 215,350 pounds of wastewater nitrogen reduced

Cost: $16.9 million

New York

Nutrient Reductions

Nitrogen: 870,500 pounds

Phosphorus: 86,700 pounds

Sample Actions

  • 18,700 acres of rotational grazing
  • 608,000 feet of stream protection with fencing
  • 100 acres of wetlands on agricultural lands
  • 350 acres of wetlands on other land
  • 2,000 acres of agricultural land retirement
  • 5,600 acres of riparian buffers
  • Wastewater treatment upgrades at 28 facilities

Cost: $15.2 million

West Virginia

Nutrient Reductions

Nitrogen: 42,254 pounds

Phosphorus: 3,364 pounds

Sample Actions

  • 14,000 acres of off-stream watering with fencing and rotational grazing
  • 1,500 acres of cover crops
  • 14,000 tons of manure transported of out watershed
  • 11 animal waste management systems
  • 200 acres of forest buffers
  • 4,000 feet of non-urban stream restoration
  • 5 acres of wetland restoration

Cost: $22 million

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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).

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