Bay Journal

Time line set for TMDL implementation plans, actions

  • By Karl Blankenship on March 01, 2010
Trumpeter swans forage in a field. More and more they are feeding on corn stubble and winter wheat since the underwater grasses they used to eat are declining as a result of degraded water quality.  (Dave Harp)

For many working on it, the Bay TMDL might instead be considered a TMLD-too many long days. Evening and weekend hours have become routine for many. Even when snow buried the government, arrangements were made to carry on with teleconference meetings, with participants calling in from home.

There are even countdown clocks. Competing versions have the due date at midnight Dec. 23-representing the hope that the task is completed by Christmas-while another represents the "actual" due date of midnight Dec. 31.

But the detailed plans to reach that date, which contain week-by week-and sometimes day-by-day actions that are needed-leave little margin for error.

At stake is the largest, most complex Total Maximum Daily Load ever developed. At its most basic level, a TMDL establishes a legally binding limit on the amount of a pollutant a water body can receive while still meeting its water quality standards. But no TMDL has ever covered a 64,000-square-mile watershed that includes portions of six states, as well as the District of Columbia.

As part of the TMDL process, the EPA is also requiring a new element, called Watershed Implementation Plans, which require states to provide more detail than ever about how they will achieve nutrient and sediment reductions. If they fail to submit plans, or submit insufficient plans, the EPA has outlined a number of punitive actions, known as "consequences," which it may impose on states. On top of that, states will biennially have to submit "milestone" plans outlining specifically what they will do and accomplish in the upcoming two-year period.

Legally, the actual Total Maximum Daily Load document isn't "due" until May 2011-the date set by a 1999 court consent decree. But state and federal leaders pledged to finish completing the plan by the end of 2010, which previously had been the date for completing the Bay cleanup, creating a tight time frame to resolve the sometimes novel technical and legal issues that arise during the process for federal and state workers alike.

"This is a first for EPA Region III, for the Bay Program office and for the states," said Katherine Antos, water quality coordinator with the EPA's Bay Program Office in Annapolis. "They have done tributary strategies before. The states have done other TMDLs before. But the expectations that we set out for this TMDL and these watershed implementation plans and the consequences piece are new. We want them to be successful in this process."

Here's a glance at highlights from the time line that is keeping people awake at night:

End of April 2010

The EPA and states will adopt "final" nutrient and sediment goals that represent the maximum amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment by river that can originate from each state. Preliminary goals were set last October, but computer model revisions and some information changes since that time mean the target numbers will change. These will also be the first numbers for sediment-those were missing in October. These will not be final numbers. States have until June to refine nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment targets if they find ways to more effectively achieve Bay water quality standards.

June 1, 2010

States must submit preliminary Watershed Implementation Plans to the EPA, which subdivides nutrient and sediment goals by sector, such as wastewater treatment plants, municipal stormwater, animal feedlots, septic systems and construction sites. Those plans must estimate the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions states expect to achieve from each sector, and evaluate whether existing state programs-and funding sources-can achieve those goals. The plans must explain how states would address such program shortfalls.

June 2 to July 1, 2010

The EPA will review Watershed Implementation Plans to determine whether state programs are sufficient to meet nutrient goals established for each sector. If not, states will be asked to revise plans.

Aug. 15 to Oct. 15, 2010

The draft TMDLs and Watershed Implementation Plans will be released for a 60-day public review and comment period, which will include meetings and hearings in each state. State and federal agencies will provide written responses to comments.

Nov. 1, 2010

States are required to submit final Watershed Implementation Plans. After that, the EPA will analyze any changes in the plans to ensure they still achieve the TMDL goals. If state plans are insufficient to meet TMDL requirements, the EPA may impose additional actions, or "consequences," such as forcing greater nutrient reductions from wastewater treatment plants and other regulated dischargers.

Dec. 31, 2010

The EPA and states agreed that the final TMDL will be published in the Federal Register by this date.

Jan. 1, 2011

Just because the TMDL is done doesn't mean plan-writing is finished. States need to start working on Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans, which will set nutrient and sediment goals to more local levels, probably counties. The goal is to make the nutrient and sediment goals more "real" for local governments, agencies and conservation districts that will actually need to take most of the actions. The local allocations are also intended to improve accountability, and the ability to track nutrient and sediment control actions.

Nov. 1, 2011

The final Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans must be submitted to the EPA for approval.

Dec. 31, 2011

States must complete the implementation of nutrient and sediment reduction milestones established in May 2009. These are the first in a series of what will become a series of biennial milestones, which will spell out the specific nutrient and sediment reductions, and other actions that will be accomplished over a two-year period to keep restoration progress on track.

Jan. 1, 2012

Implementation begins on the first post-TMDL development two-year milestone. Milestones are set by the states.

Jan. 1, 2017

States must submit Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans, updated with lessons learned in previous years, which will guide actions through 2025.

Dec. 31, 2017

States must have actions implemented that would achieve 60 percent of the nutrient and sediment reduction goals.

Dec. 31, 2025

All needed actions to achieve Bay water quality standards must be implemented throughout the watershed.

The EPA will host a webinar about the Chesapeake Bay TMDL on March 25. For information, or to register, visit its Bay TMDL website at www.epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl/

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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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