Hoping to return the Chesapeake to conditions seen decades ago, senior Bay region officials have agreed to slash nutrient inputs to the Bay nearly 50 percent from their 1985 levels.

If achieved, state and federal officials expect to see dramatic expansions in beds of underwater grasses, much clearer water, fewer algae blooms and a greatly reduced oxygen-depleted “dead zone.”

“It will give us conditions we haven’t seen in the Bay for 40 years,” said Diana Esher, deputy director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

But it will come with a steep price tag. The Bay Program has estimated the cleanup cost could top $1 billion a year, although officials have labeled that a “worst case” scenario.

Nonetheless, senior officials from the federal and state governments in March agreed to set new nitrogen and phosphorus allocations for each state and major Chesapeake tributary.

The allocations limit the amount of nutrients that may be released into waterways each year. Meeting them will require far greater actions to reduce nutrient-laden runoff from farms and cities, tighter controls on wastewater treatment plants and even new curbs on air pollution.

“Since 1607, the Chesapeake Bay has meant a great deal to the people of this region,” Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy told the group. “It has been an economic engine for this region. What we are trying to do is return this estuary to a condition where it will continue to be that great resource.”

The nutrient reductions are more than double what the region has accomplished since 1987 when nutrient control efforts were first launched by the Bay Program, a partnership between the federal government; the District of Columbia; the states of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

The new reductions will require, for the first time, that nutrient reduction goals be assigned to the three “headwater states” of Delaware, New York and West Virginia. Although not members of the Bay Program, governors of those states have signed agreements pledging to help reduce Bay pollution.

Officials from all jurisdictions have agreed to limit the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay to an annual average of 175 million pound. That is a 48 percent reduction from the mid-1980s, when Chesapeake conditions were considered to be at their worst, and about a 39 percent reduction from current levels.

They also agreed to limit phosphorus to 12.8 million pounds a year, a 53 percent reduction from the mid-1980s, and a 33 percent reduction from current levels.

Those would be the greatest levels of nutrient reductions sought by any coastal restoration effort in the nation. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary Kathleen McGinty hailed the allocation agreement as a “historic compromise.”

The hope is to reach goals by 2010, although many doubt that deadline can be met. Still, officials are optimistic that many parts of the Bay and its tidal tributaries can be cleaned up by the end of the decade.
Still to be set are the Bay’s first-ever sediment reduction goals, which are expected by the end of April.

After that, efforts will begin to write nutrient and sediment control strategies that will spell out how the new goals will be reached for each of the Bay’s major tributaries. Those strategies are to be completed by April 2004, although Maryland plans to have its strategies done by the end of this year.

The nutrient and sediment reductions are aimed at meeting new water quality criteria that have been developed for the Chesapeake by teams of experts over the past three years. The criteria establish measurable water quality conditions that will allow fish, underwater grasses, crabs and other key resources to thrive.

Using computer models, the Bay Program explored how water quality responded to different levels of nutrient reductions to set the goals. After exploring nitrogen goals ranging from 198 million and 160 million pounds a year, officials settled on 175 million. The models showed that limits of both 175 million and 160 million pounds would attain the new water quality criteria throughout the Bay except for one mid-Bay area.

While the 160 million figure came slightly closer to attaining the proposed criteria in that area, some felt such a steep reduction may be unachievable.

“This achieves our criteria in all the tributaries and in almost all of the Bay’s mainstem,” said Robert Magnien, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“In one deep-water layer of one segment of the mainstem we are very close to attainment of our dissolved oxygen criteria and the difference between 175 and 160 million pounds per year of nitrogen is negligible,” he said. “Achieving this challenging goal will mean widespread and profound improvements for the water quality, habitat and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay.”

Officials used a complex formula to allocate nutrient loads among states and rivers. Generally, tributaries from the Potomac River north had to achieve greater reductions because they have a greater impact on the Chesapeake’s water quality.

Still, state officials entered the March meeting 12 million pounds over the 175 million goal.

But the EPA contended that 8 million pounds of reductions could be achieved through the Bush administration’s “Clear Skies” initiative now before Congress, which calls for steep nitrogen oxide emission reductions from power plants. After factoring in that 8 million pounds of reductions, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District divided the remaining 4 million pounds to close the gap.

Still, the nutrient goal was criticized as too lax by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which called it a political compromise as the 160 million would have brought the Bay closer to compliance with the new standards.

“The EPA Bay Program staff have done a tremendous amount of of good and cutting edge science, but that science has not been translated into the allocation because if it were, the goal would be 160 million pounds or less,” said Roy Hoagland, the CBF’s Virginia director. “That decision should be resource-based, not a political decision.”

He said the hope that 8 million pounds could be reaped from Clear Skies was “a wing and a prayer,” because it’s uncertain the needed legislation will be approved.

Meanwhile, representatives from the region’s wastewater treatment plant operators were dismayed that the committee never talked about the costs of nutrient reductions, which by some estimates could exceed $1 billion a year. They fear that wastewater treatment plants, which have achieved a disproportionate amount of nutrient reductions to date, will continue to face an expensive, cleanup burden.

“We’re just surprised that they made the decision without seeing the cost first,” said Clyde Wilbur, representing the region’s wastewater treatment plant operators.

He cited a Bay Program analysis which showed that setting the nitrogen cap at 175 million pounds instead of 198 million pounds would increase annual costs by nearly 50 percent while achieving only marginal increases in oxygen concentrations in the water.

Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office, defended the reduction goal, saying the further effort not only improved oxygen levels but also would reduce excessive algae levels in tributaries and improve water clarity for grass beds.

Scientists estimate that the amount of nutrients entering the Bay has roughly doubled since the 1950s, causing dramatic increases in algae production. In some places, algae densities are 10 times greater than they were only a few decades ago.

Normally, algae forms the base of the Bay’s food web, but there is far more algae in the Chesapeake today than can be consumed by oysters and fish. Further, much of today’s algae production comes in forms not preferred by predators.

The result has been a dramatic worsening of Chesapeake water quality. In shallow areas, algae blooms blot out the sunlight, killing beds of underwater grasses that provide essential food and habitat for waterfowl, blue crabs, juvenile fish and other species.

In deeper waters, the excess algae die, sink and are decomposed by bacteria in a process that robs the water of oxygen, making it off-limits to most fish and other Bay dwellers. The volume of low-oxygen, or hypoxic, water in the Bay has more than doubled since the 1950s. And the once-rare presence of anoxic (oxygen depleted) water has become an annual occurrence in deep parts of the Chesapeake.

To dramatize the decline of the Bay, former Maryland state Sen. Bernie Fowler leads annual wades into the Patuxent River with a group of people. In the 1950s, Fowler says he could clearly see crabs scurrying about his feet while standing chest-deep in water. In recent years, his feet have disappeared by the time he is waist deep.

“Bernie Fowler will be able to see his tennis shoes if we are able to achieve this 110-million-pound nitrogen reduction,” promised Esher, of the EPA.

Officials believe the improvements will return roughly 180,000 acres of grass beds in the Chesapeake; more than has been present in generations. Also, the chronic oxygen-depleted “dead zone” would disappear from all but the deepest areas of the Bay.

Excess nutrients were recognized as a major problem for the Bay in a seven-year EPA study concluded in 1983.

In 1987, the Bay Program made nutrient reductions a key objective, calling for a 40 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus by 2000. The goal was substantially altered over the years, and by 2000, the Bay states had achieved only a 15 percent reduction in nitrogen and a 30 percent reduction in phosphorus.

The new goals carry far more weight than the old ones. The new allocations are specifically linked to newly developed water quality criteria, which states are to adopt as legally enforceable water quality standards by 2005.

Because the standards must be attained to comply with the Clean Water Act, the nutrient reduction goals cannot be changed—as happened with the 1987 goal—unless new information shows different reduction levels would do the job.

“It is the quality of the water to protect the resource that is our goal,” Murphy said. “The allocations are a means to achieve it.