An analysis

When the Bay region went on a pollution diet in 2010, it was touted as a game changer. After repeatedly missing past deadlines, the new, more enforceable diet was intended to ensure that pollution reduction goals would not only be met, but progress would be accelerated.

Instead, new figures released from the state-federal Bay Program partnership in April provide a sense of deja vu.

While overall progress is being made, the figures show no substantial increase in the rate of nitrogen reductions compared with the years immediately preceding the establishment of the pollution diet. In part, that’s because new data show some nitrogen loads, primarily from agriculture, had been underestimated in the past.

As a result, it is increasingly unlikely that the region will meet its interim 2017 reduction goals for nitrogen — the nutrient primarily responsible for the Bay’s summertime dead zone.

The shortfall is driven in large part by Pennsylvania, which faces a huge gap, and where estimated nitrogen loads have actually increased slightly. Other states face problems, though they are smaller in scale.

The sediment goal is also far off the pace needed to meet the 2017 goal.

And, the same is likely true for phosphorus. Although the goals are being met in computer model estimates, the actual loads reaching the Bay from tributaries show a different story, as monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey shows increasing phosphorus loads from six of the Bay’s nine river basins over the last decade. Therefore, officials believe the phosphorus estimates released in April will be adjusted in the future.

Estimating cleanup progress

The nutrient and sediment figures analyzed for this Bay Journal article come from an annual estimate of progress toward meeting the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet, developed by the Bay Program.

The TMDL established nutrient and sediment limits for the Bay that are aimed at making it a healthier place for fish, crabs, waterfowl and other creatures. Excess nutrients fuel algae blooms that cloud the water and remove oxygen when they die and decompose. Sediment, along with the algae, cloud the water and kill underwater grass beds which provide critical habitat for many species.

Meeting the TMDL goals would help eliminate the Bay’s summertime oxygen-starved “dead zone” and clear its water enough to allow a dramatic expansion of grass beds.

Reduction goals were set for each stated and major pollution sector — agriculture, wastewater plants, urban runoff, septics and forests.

The pollution reduction goals are to be met by 2025. But largely because past nutrient reduction goals established for 2000 and 2010 were missed by wide margins, a new accountability framework was established with the TMDL to keep efforts on track. The framework included the establishment of an interim goal for achieving 60 percent of the needed reductions by the end of 2017.

The Bay Program’s annual progress estimates come from data provided by states about the actions they took the previous year to meet the TMDL goals, such as the acres of cover crops planted and the number of wastewater treatment plants upgraded.

That data, along with information such as population and land use changes, are run through a computer model which then estimates the amount of pollution reductions those actions should achieve.

Actions coming up short

The latest figures, which cover the five-year period from 2010 through 2014 show the region is making nitrogen reductions, but not at the pace needed to meet cleanup goals. In fact, the figures released in April show that nitrogen loads to the Bay actually ticked up a bit from 2013.

In large part, that reflects inclusion of new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that show the amount of cropland in the watershed had previously been underestimated. Cropland produces large amounts of nutrient runoff. Changes in population and revised land use estimates showing more urban and suburban development were also incorporated in the 2014 data, but they did not have major impacts on the overall figures.

Overall, when the new data and state actions are tallied together, they show that during the last five years, watershed states achieved only 11.7 million pounds of the 40.7 million pound nitrogen reduction goal for 2017. That leaves a gap of 29 million pounds to close in just three years.

But the data show that 23 million pounds of that gap stems from Pennsylvania, where computer estimates actually show a slight increase in nitrogen pollution since 2009.

Put another way, Pennsylvania would need to achieve nearly four times as much of a nitrogen reduction as the rest of the watershed combined in the next three years to achieve the interim goal.

The Pennsylvania shortfall is especially problematic for Bay water quality. The Chesapeake is essentially an extension of the Susquehanna River which drains most of Pennsylvania’s portion of the watershed. (A small part of Pennsylvania is in the Potomac basin.)

The Susquehanna is both the Bay’s largest tributary, and its largest source of nitrogen. Pound for pound, nitrogen from the Susquehanna also has a greater impact on dissolved oxygen levels in the Upper Bay than it does from any other river. In fact, scientists each year can predict the size and duration of the Bay’s oxygen-starved summer dead zone based on springtime river flows and nitrogen loads from the Susquehanna.

That means if nitrogen reductions from the Susquehanna are not achieved, it is very difficult to offset them with greater reductions from other areas to meet Bay dissolved oxygen goals.

Figuring out how to close Pennsylvania’s gap isn’t easy. Most of the shortfall, 18.7 million pounds, is in the state’s agricultural sector. An EPA review of the state’s animal agricultural programs released in February found that oversight, coordination and compliance for those programs is often lacking.

Pennsylvania’s acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley acknowledged the problem in a response to the report, saying the state needed to “re-engage with all stakeholders to identify the most effective approaches that can be scaled up to achieve the goals set out in our Watershed Implementation Plan.” Quigley also said the state would prefer to use voluntary approaches to meet its agricultural goals.

But it is hard to see how voluntary approaches, which rely heavily on financial incentives, will get the state where it needs to be. Quigley acknowledged at a recent legislative budget hearing that there is not enough state funding for the Bay effort.

To complicate that, a report on federal Chesapeake Bay progress released in March shows funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, the primary funding source for agricultural conservation efforts in the Bay watershed, has decreased more than a third from 2011 to 2015, from $150 million to $94 million.

Agricultural conservation efforts in Pennsylvania — as well as most other watershed states — have to be accelerated even as the primary funding source for voluntary efforts is decreasing.

Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she is worried that the progress promised under the TMDL framework is falling short, especially in Pennsylvania.

“We are concerned. We had counted on this framework to put us on the path to success, but it frankly relies a lot on EPA being strong,” she said. “We think it is time for EPA to start acting on Pennsylvania’s lack of progress.”

Last year, the EPA expressed concern about Pennsylvania’s lack of progress, and warned it would ramp up oversight and could impose “backstop” measures to accelerate progress.

But the new data show that nitrogen loads actually increased by about 4 million pounds since then. Most of the change was driven by the new USDA cropland data. But even without that change, the state would still not have an improving trend.

The EPA last year said it could require greater reductions from regulated sources like wastewater treatment plants if unregulated sources were not meeting their goals. But wastewater accounts for 9.8 million pounds of nitrogen from the state — less than 10 percent of its total contribution. Even if a cork were put in the discharge pipe of every treatment plant in Pennsylvania’s portion of the watershed, the state would still have to accomplish twice the nitrogen reductions of the rest of the Bay watershed combined in the next three years.

While Pennsylvania’s situation is the most problematic, the data also has worrisome signs for other states, though their shortfalls are significantly smaller.

All states have seen increased nitrogen from stormwater runoff since 2009. And all except Virginia and West Virginia are falling short of the trajectory needed to achieve their agricultural goals.

The shortfalls in most of those states are being offset by wastewater treatment plants. The District of Columbia has already reached its 2025 goal, thanks to upgrades at its massive Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, and reductions are ahead of schedule everywhere else except New York.

But by 2017, most states will have met — or be close to — their 2025 wastewater goals, and will need to increase reliance on stormwater and agriculture runoff controls, where progress has been more elusive.

Confusion over phosphorus

The story with phosphorus is murkier. The annual progress data suggest the region has met its phosphorus goals, but actual water quality monitoring reveals that several rivers that once showed improvements now show no trend, and several that once showed no trend now show increases. Over the last decade, no major Bay tributary has shown a downward trend in phosphorus concentrations.

“Monitoring data show that we still have work to do to lessen the quantities of nutrients in Bay tributaries, particularly with respect to phosphorus levels,” said Joel Blomquist, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who spoke at a media briefing at which the figures were released.

Much of the improved phosphorus estimates in the latest figures stem from the inclusion of updated information from the USDA that showed fewer chickens being grown in the watershed than previously estimated. That reduced the estimate of the amount of phosphorus-rich chicken manure produced.

But officials caution that an ongoing Bay Program review shows that chickens, on average, may be growing larger and producing more waste than previously assumed — information not included in the recent estimate.

Also, the phosphorus estimates don’t take into account that some areas with intensive animal agriculture, such as Maryland’s Eastern Shore, have soils that have become so saturated with the nutrient that they are leaking more phosphorus into waterways than previously thought. That is not fully accounted for in computer models that estimate the amount reaching the Bay.

An updated model that better reflects phosphorus movement through soils, and which includes updated information about poultry litter, is being developed as part of a planned reassessment of cleanup efforts in 2017. Those changes are expected to bring computer generated phosphorus estimates more in line with water quality monitoring.

Katherine Antos, of the EPA, who leads the Bay Program Office’s Implementation and Evaluation Team, said it is likely that review — expected to be completed in 2017 — “will show that additional actions will be necessary to manage phosphorus pollution entering the Bay. So the bottom line is that while the…pollution indicator shows that phosphorus reductions are ahead of schedule, federal state and local partners must not back off from commitments to manage phosphorus.”

The EPA is completing its own assessment of state progress through 2014. It is expected to release its conclusions, recommendations — and potential actions — at the end of May.