The Bay cleanup tab could exceed $30 billion in the coming years if states were to fully implement the nutrient and sediment control strategies they developed this year.

That estimate was produced by the EPA’s Bay Program Office for a special Blue Ribbon Finance Panel that is to make recommendations by mid-October about how to pay for the steep nutrient and sediment reductions agreed upon last year to restore the Bay.

Using figures derived from river cleanup plans being devised by the states, the figures showed the cleanup would require $29.3 billion in capital costs, including upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff controls, the installation of forest buffer strips and other long-term investments.

In addition, it would cost $2.1 billion a year to operate and maintain those nutrient and sediment control practices and to finance other yearly programs such as payments to farmers to plant nutrient-absorbing cover crops in the fall.

Altogether, the estimate suggested that the total annual cost, assuming a phase-in of capital expenses along with yearly expenses, could be in the range of $4 billion to $5 billion throughout the Bay watershed.

That is much higher than estimates generated only a year ago. Bay Program documents published last fall had put the cost at a bit more than $1 billion a year. A report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures, last year estimated it would cost about $10.8 billion to meet the water quality goals, although its report looked only at Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and District of Columbia expenses.
Still, officials say the figures will likely continue to increase. As of late September, only Maryland had finalized plans detailing how it would achieve nutrient and sediment limits set for each river in the state. Costs for other states are expected to grow as their plans are completed.

Former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, the chair for the blue ribbon panel, described himself as “frustrated” at the changing cost estimates. “I have resigned myself to the fact that we will never have a final number,” he told the panel.

The 15-member panel, appointed by governors of the Bay region states, includes politicians, business leaders, economic experts and others and was charged with finding innovative ways of paying for the huge nutrient and sediment reductions needed to improve water quality for fish, shellfish and other creatures.

But the estimated cost could make the Bay one of the most expensive environmental restoration efforts in the country, far exceeding the $8 billion tab for Everglades restoration in Florida, which is largely financed by the federal government.

In the wake of the Everglades commitment, other regions are also eyeing the federal government to help with multibillion dollar environmental programs to clean up the Great Lakes, stem the massive loss of wetlands in coastal Louisiana, and reduce nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

“We know other parts of the country are going to get it if we don’t,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a member of the blue ribbon panel.

Baliles, though, warned that the escalating cost could hurt the chances of winning added funding support from the federal government. “The higher the number, the more reluctant Congress is going to be to even look at this,” he said.

Last year, all six states within the Bay watershed as well as the District of Columbia and the EPA agreed on specific nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reduction goals for each jurisdiction and river that drains into the Bay. Excess nutrients and sediment are blamed for dramatically worsening the water quality over the last half century, causing huge die-offs in underwater grass beds and increasingly large oxygen-starved “dead zones.”

If the nutrient and sediment reduction goals are met, they would turn back the clock, bringing Bay water quality back to conditions observed in the 1950s, a time when dead zones were rare, and grass beds blanketed large areas of the Bay. Such conditions would dramatically increase the amount of habitat for fish, shellfish, waterfowl and other species that rely on the Bay’s diverse habitats.

To turn that goal into a reality, all seven jurisdictions in the watershed—Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Delaware and the District of Columbia —have worked to develop “tributary strategies,” which are river-specific plans detailing actions needed to achieve the goals for each major river. Estimated costs have grown steadily as states have had to squeeze nutrient reductions from costly sources—such as urban stormwater upgrades and rural septic system replacements—to achieve their goals.

The estimated capital costs, by jurisdiction, were:

  • Delaware: $305 million, but not all of its tributary strategies are developed.
  • District of Columbia: $4.3 billion, but the strategy does not yet meet its nutrient goals.
  • Maryland: $9 billion.
  • New York: $447 million, but tributary strategies are still under development.
  • Pennsylvania: $8.6 billion, but strategies are undergoing public review and may change.
  • Virginia: $6.3 billion. The strategy was recently revised based on public comments, so the estimate does not include those changes.
  • West Virginia: $354 million, but its strategies do not yet meet nutrient goals.

Some officials caution that many of the actions included in the tributary strategies would have to be taken regardless of the Bay cleanup effort. For example, many of the costly stormwater controls called for in tributary strategies are needed to comply with new EPA regulations.

The District of Columbia included a $1.3 billion expense for controlling sewer overflows during heavy rainstorms—something it was already required to do under a court order.

In fact, about half of the $29 billion in capital costs would be required anyway, said Mike Burke, of the EPA’s Bay Program Office.

Also, strategies are expected to be revised over time, and states may choose to adopt measures that prove more economical and effective than others. “Cost effectiveness will be a continuing issue for the states as they continue moving toward implementation,” Burke said.

Further, he noted, costs may go down as ways are found to more cost effectively implement various nutrient control practices. He noted that the cost for controlling nitrogen at wastewater treatment plants has decreased “quite significantly” as new control technologies have become more widely used.

In the early 1990s, the Bay Program estimated that upgrading wastewater treatment plants would cost $20 for every pound of nitrogen removed. As control technologies have become more widely used, the cost has been less than $5 per pound.

Nor do the strategies include cost savings which might stem from establishing nutrient trading programs, in which pollution sources where reductions can be achieved cheaply are paid to do more by sources where reductions are more costly.

In some cases, the strategies also reflect decisions by states to share the nutrient reduction burden among nutrient sources. The most economical nutrient reductions can be made on agricultural lands and at wastewater treatment plants which, combined, generate about two-thirds of the nutrients entering the Bay. Upgrades of stormwater systems and installing nitrogen-removing septic systems are far more expensive.

The estimated cost, by nutrient and sediment sources, in the tributary strategies include:

  • Agricultural nutrient controls total $1.7 billion in capital costs, plus $289 million in annual expenses.
  • Upgrading wastewater treatment plants would cost $6.1 billion, plus $78 million a year in operation and maintenance expenses.
  • Installing septic systems that could remove nitrogen in wastes would cost $5 billion, plus $298 million a year in operating and maintenance expenses.
  • Nutrient controls on urban lands, including such things as improved stormwater controls and reducing runoff from landscaping, accounted for more than half the capital costs—$16.5 billion—in addition to $1.4 billion a year in operating and maintenance costs.

While the cost is high, some officials noted that the region is already paying a steep cost for polluting the Bay in terms of degraded water quality and reduced harvests.

“The fact of the matter is that a healthy environment costs money and it ought to be given the same priority of other areas of state government,” Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy, told senior officials from other states after the figures were presented at a recent meeting.