At a time when many are worried that the cost of cleaning the Chesapeake could bust the bank, a new report suggests that the vast majority of the Bay’s needed nutrient reductions are affordable with technology available today.

The report, from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, contends that all major wastewater treatment plants in the watershed can be upgraded with state-of-the-art nutrient control technology for 5 cents per customer per day.

Those upgrades, combined with the widespread use of currently available practices to control agricultural runoff, could accomplish nearly 90 percent of the Bay Program’s nutrient reduction goal, according to the report, Chesapeake 2004: A Blueprint for Success.

“The report makes clear that the costs we are talking about here are not show stoppers,” said Bill Matuszeski, a member of the Alliance’s board, and the retired director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. “It’s a ‘can do’ report for a ‘can’t do’ era.”

The report stemmed from questions raised throughout the year by various groups about the Bay Program, as well as the perceived high cost and slow pace of the Chesapeake cleanup effort.

Some have questioned whether the Bay restoration effort is worth the cost, while others have questioned whether the state-federal Bay Program partnership was still capable of leading the cleanup—the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called for a new system of governance, such as an interstate compact that would have revenue-raising and regulatory power, to lead the effort.

The report examined a host of structural and financial issues facing the Bay Program, and concluded that the Chesapeake can be cleaned up with the existing non-regulatory governance structure but also said that governors and other senior officials needed to show more leadership to get the job done.

It said the governance framework that has been in place for two decades had been successful in building a teamwork approach to cleaning up the Chesapeake that not only involves the original Bay Program partners—Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government—but has also attracted support from the headwater states of Delaware, West Virginia and New York.

That cooperation, the report noted, helped lead to all of the parties signing off in March 2003 on new water quality criteria for the Bay that will require dramatic additional nutrient reductions.

A new regulatory approach would likely only result in lawsuits that could further delay cleanup progress, said David Bancroft, the Alliance’s executive director. The challenge, he said, is for state leaders to more aggressively move toward implementing cost-effective nutrient reduction efforts under the current voluntary approach.

“The question really comes down to, do you want litigation, or do you want leadership,” Bancroft said. “We’re asking for leadership.”

Specifically, he said, the governors need to set broad cleanup goals, based on available technologies, for the watershed. At the same time, he said, locally based groups writing nutrient reduction strategies for specific tributaries should have some flexibility as to how those goals are applied.

As one broad goal, the report calls for all 304 major wastewater treatment plants in the watershed to reduce nitrogen concentrations in discharges to 3 milligrams per liter of water, which is considered to be near the limit of current technology. (Normal wastewater has concentrations of about 18 mg/l).

In some cases, that may not be possible, the report acknowledged. But all tributaries ought to be able to achieve, through trading or other mechanisms, at least an annual average of 3.5 mg/l among its plants, the report said.

The costs of those upgrades has been estimated to be $2.7 billion to $4.4 billion, which amounts to about 5 cents per person per day when spread among the 13 million watershed residents on public sewer systems.

“It’s 5 cents a day to bring back the Bay,” Bancroft said. “It’s technology that that is here now, is affordable, and we can do it. It should be our first strategy out of the box. And if we bring in federal dollars, that brings the cost down more and makes it even more affordable.”

That alone could achieve about 30 percent of the 110 million pounds of annual nitrogen reductions needed to meet the new water quality criteria, which would require annual nitrogen limits of about 175 million pounds.

Another 60 percent of the nitrogen reduction goal could be achieved by implementing nutrient management plans on all of the farmland in the watershed and planting fall cover crops on appropriate fields.

Nutrient management plans are fertilizer budgets that seek to optimize nutrient applications with the actual needs of crops to minimize the amount of fertilizer left on fields that runs off into streams. Cover crops are grasses that are planted soon after harvest to soak up excess nutrients left on a field.

The report said the cost for the widespread planting of cover crops would be about $50 million a year, and that states needed to create a multiyear funding source to support the program. It also said that the states needed to have oversight programs that ensure nutrient plans are being properly written and implemented.

The report said other innovations, such as better diet management for animals, alternative uses for manure such as energy production, and other technologies that are becoming available could achieve further cost-effective reductions from agricultural areas.

The report does not attempt to estimate the total cost of achieving the nutrient reductions needed to clean up the Bay, but it does suggest that the total bill would likely be considerably less than the roughly $10 billion that has been estimated.

That figure stemmed from a Chesapeake Bay Commission report that priced out the cost of implementing a specific mix of nutrient reduction activities that would meet the nutrient reduction goals, but was not necessarily the most cost-effective mix.

(The often-cited $19 billion figure includes not only nutrient reduction costs, but other Bay goals, such as education, removing blockages to fish migration, land preservation and a host of other activities.)

A major part of the cost in the commission’s estimates, for instance, went toward improving stormwater control in old urban areas—places that contribute relatively small amounts of nutrients, but incur huge expenses.

As a result, Matuszeski said, the report “substantially overstated” the costs of meeting nutrient reduction goals. “We have to get people thinking that number one, the costs are not that high, second, that they are bearable within the region, and third, that we need to get going now, and not sit on our duffs waiting for a federal bailout,” he said.

If cost-effective techniques are used to achieve 90 percent of the needed nutrient reductions, he said, the remaining 10 percent can come from the most cost-effective mix of other sources, or be achieved through new technologies or regulations. He noted, for instance, the proposed new EPA air pollution rules could reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay by 8 million pounds—almost filling the 10 percent “gap.”
“The states can get political support for achieving these goals if they state them in the right way, if they find the cost-effective ways of getting there, and if they assert leadership,” Matuszeski said.

Among other recommendations in the report:

o Congress should increase the annual appropriation for the EPA’s Bay Program Office to $30 million a year, from its current level of about $20 million annually. The budget has been fairly steady over the past decade, even as the Chesapeake 2000 agreement expanded the scope of the restoration effort, and the Bay Program has begun supporting efforts in the headwater states of New York, Delaware and West Virginia.

o An economic analysis of the benefits of cleaning up the Chesapeake should be completed. While the costs of cleaning up the Bay are often cited, Bancroft noted that there are many economic benefits to improving water quality. These include not only greater commercial and recreational fishing opportunities, but also jobs created through wastewater treatment plant upgrades, and enhanced values for properties near the water. Such an analysis could increase support for the Bay cleanup, especially within the business community.