Bay Journal

Overall, Bay region exceeded 2012-13 nutrient, sediment reduction goals

Individually, some states are lagging, plus ag and stormwater controls must be stepped up if later targets are to be met

  • By Karl Blankenship on May 10, 2014
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Nutrient and sediment reductions by jurisdiction, measured from a 2009 baseline. 2013 progress reflects implementation efforts reported by states, 2013 milestones represent goals set by jurisdictions. Some figures are rounded.  (Chesapeake Bay Program) Of the region’s 17 million pounds of nitrogen reductions accomplished since 2009  — 11 million were achieved through wastewater treatment plant upgrades.  (Dave Harp)

The Bay region exceeded its overall Chesapeake nutrient and sediment reduction goals for 2012–13, according to recently released figures. But the data also show that the region will need to accelerate agricultural and stormwater controls if it is to meet pollution reduction targets set for 2017.

Data submitted to the EPA from the states show that from 2009 through 2013, they have slashed the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay by 17 million pounds — 4 million pounds more than they had committed to. Phosphorus reductions were also ahead of schedule.

But figures released by the state-federal Bay Program partnership in late March also showed that some states have fallen short of their goals.

In addition, they show that the majority of nutrient reductions were achieved as more wastewater treatment plant upgrades came on line and wastewater flows were less than anticipated.

Reductions from agriculture and stormwater — two sectors where controls have long proven problematic — are not on a trajectory that would meet either a 2017 interim cleanup goal or the overall Bay goals for 2025.

The estimates come from annual reports made by states to the EPA Bay Program Office about pollution control actions taken during the previous year. A computer model estimates the amount of pollution reductions those actions would achieve.

The estimates were released as part of an accountability framework established under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet.

The TMDL, established in 2010, set limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that could enter the Bay to improve water quality to the point it would sustain healthy populations of fish, crabs, underwater grasses and other species. Under the TMDL, actions needed to achieve pollution reduction goals have to be in place by the end of 2025, but states need to implement actions that would achieve 60 percent of the reductions by 2017.

To ensure states stay on track, the TMDL required that states set goals in two-year increments, known as milestones.

Those plans outline the amount of nutrient and sediment reductions that will be achieved during each milestone period, as well as the specific actions to reach those goals, such as the number of cover crops to be planted, stormwater system controls to be installed and wastewater treatment plants to be upgraded. In their milestones, states also estimate the amount of nutrient and sediment reductions that will be achieved by each major sector — agriculture, urban runoff, wastewater, septic systems and forests.

In addition, the milestones outline changes that states will make to improve their programs, such as new regulations, policies or funding sources.

The first two-year milestones completed under the TMDL covered 2012–13. (An earlier set of milestones covered 2009–11, but did not contain the same tracking features, as they were developed before the TMDL was finalized.)

While the region as a whole is on track to meet goals set for 2013, the data show where some states are ahead of schedule in some areas and where others are missing their marks.

Pennsylvania and Delaware missed their nitrogen reduction goals; Delaware missed its phosphorus goals; and Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York missed their sediment goals.

The EPA is reviewing progress made through 2013, and will release written reviews for each state in June, as well as evaluations of milestones submitted by each jurisdiction for 2014–15.

In addition to reviewing actual nutrient reduction progress, EPA officials are reviewing whether states have made programmatic changes, such as improved policies, that would be expected to improve future performance.

EPA officials declined to comment on the specific information submitted by the states until its review is complete.

“We are in the process of evaluating the 2012–13 milestone progress as well as the adequacy of the 2014–15 milestone submissions,” said Jim Edward, deputy director of the EPA Bay Program Office. “More than just the raw data goes into those evaluations and we’ll discuss them more fully when the evaluations are completed in June.”

Environmental groups, which saw Bay cleanup goals repeatedly missed in the decades prior to the TMDL, are watching to see how the EPA responds.

“Being the first official milestones under the TMDL, I think this is a really important time for EPA to send a strong message and hold the states accountable,” said Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Theoretically, the EPA has a variety of actions it could take if it concludes states are falling short of expectations. Those range from taking over permit programs to directing that federal water grants be used for specific purposes. But officials have not indicated they would take any actions because of shortfalls in the first milestones.

The data also show disparity among pollution sectors.

Of the region’s 17 million pounds of nitrogen reductions accomplished since 2009 — the baseline year for measuring nutrient reductions under the TMDL — 11 million were achieved through wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Agricultural runoff, the largest source of nutrients to the Bay, decreased by 6 million pounds. Nutrients from stormwater increased.

But the potential for future wastewater reductions is limited because the region’s population, and therefore flows, will continue to grow. The 2017 goals for wastewater have already been exceeded and the region is near its 2025 goals for sewage plants.

That means most of the remaining reductions must come from other sectors, where efforts would need to be dramatically ramped up.

To meet the agriculture goal, for instance, nitrogen runoff from farms would need to be reduced by 4.7 million pounds annually during the next four years, up from an average of 1.6 million during the last four years.

For agriculture, the data show that Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York would have to accelerate their rate of nitrogen reductions to meet 2017 goals. Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia would have to increase their rates of phosphorus reductions.

Nitrogen loads from urban runoff increased by 1 million pounds in the last four years. They would need to be reduced by 2 million pounds annually to meet the 2017 goal. No state is on a trajectory to meet nitrogen stormwater goals. (Maryland, New York, West Virginia and Virginia are on a pace to meet phosphorus stormwater goals.)

“We really hope that EPA looks at the sector-specific loads and whether the states are on track or not, and whether they have any plans to rectify the situation,” McGee said. “The point of the milestones is to avoid the mistakes of the past, so we have the two-year check-ins.”

The data show that the greatest agricultural shortfalls are in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Pennsylvania accomplished just 1.5 million pounds of nitrogen reductions from agriculture in 2010 through 2013. It would need to achieve almost 15 million pounds of additional reductions to meet its 2017 goals — a tenfold increase.

Amanda Witman, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, acknowledged in an e-mail that the state missed its nitrogen and sediment milestones, and that it is working to accelerate efforts to meet 2017 goals, including expanding outreach to local governments and farmers, and targeting priority watersheds for stepped-up efforts.

But Witman said some pollution control actions already taken, particularly in the agricultural sector, are unreported and the state is working to improve its tracking system so it captures those efforts. In addition, she said the agency believes that many pollution control actions that have been taken reduce pollution more than they are given credit for under the model used to evaluate progress — an issue that is under review by the Bay Program.

“Increasing our efforts, improving our data collection and adjusting the model will likely result in a more accurate picture of what is truly happening in Pennsylvania’s Bay watershed,” Witman said. “Overall, DEP believes that Pennsylvania is currently emitting less than the model currently depicts.”

The data show that Delaware’s nitrogen loadings from agriculture actually increased by almost 70,000 pounds from 2009, and its total shortfall for 2013 was 188,000 pounds. Likewise, its phosphorus loads from agriculture increased by about 5,000 pounds.

Delaware officials acknowledged the shortfall, but contend it was largely due to a change the Bay Program made in the way it required states to report agricultural acres under nutrient management plans in order to be included in model estimates of nutrient reductions.

The change showed Delaware having fewer acres under nutrient management plans than it has shown in the past.

“Delaware remains committed to one of the most aggressive nutrient management programs in the country,” said Ed Kee, secretary of Delaware’s Department of Agriculture. “It’s unfortunate that changes in the model diminish our progress.”

Officials also said farmers in the state have been using new nutrient control practices that have not yet been assigned nutrient reduction values by the Bay Program and therefore were not counted toward milestone goals.

They said new regulations will help the state meet and exceed goals for septic tanks and stormwater in the future, and that it is exceeding its goal for wetland restoration.

Progress toward meeting Bay pollution reduction goals by state, sector and watershed can be found online at http://stat.chesapeakebay.net. Select the “Water Quality” tab and then “TMDL Tracking.”

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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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