After spending more than a decade heading in the right direction, the Bay Program is starting to map out where it wants to go and when it is going to get there.
Bay Program officials have developed a detailed timeline spelling out for the first time when they will:
- Determine what a “clean” Bay is (by 2001);
- Decide what nutrient reductions are needed to get there (also by 2001);
- Incorporate those nutrient reductions in tributary strategies (by 2002); and
- Clean up the Bay (by 2010).
That may sound like it fits into the “been there, done that” classification. After all, the Bay states have worked to clean up the Chesapeake since adopting a 40 percent nutrient reduction goal in 1987. Most tributaries have had nutrient reduction strategies since the mid-1990s.
While those efforts will make the Bay cleaner, it has been recognized for years that more action would be needed to restore important habitats such as underwater grasses, which occupy only about a tenth of their historic area.
Now, officials plan to figure out by the end of 2001, after public review, exactly what a “clean” Bay looks like. That process will establish specific endpoints, such as water clear enough to support underwater grasses or oxygen levels in deep parts of the Bay that support fish. Then, nutrient reductions would be set meet those endpoints by 2010.
The urgency behind the cleanup timeline stems from the Bay being placed on the EPA’s “dirty waters” list — a compilation of waterbodies that don’t meet water quality standards. Any waterbody on the list needs a detailed cleanup plan known as a Total Maximum Daily Load.
A TMDL calculates the maximum amount of pollution a water body can receive and still attain its standard, and becomes the basis for pollution reductions. A TMDL, in the case of the Bay, could force nutrient reductions through strict regulations that some fear could be costly.
To head off a TMDL, the Bay states hope to achieve a clean Bay through voluntary means by 2010. If they fail, the EPA has indicated a TMDL would be imposed in 2011 under the terms of a settlement stemming from a lawsuit by environmental groups.
But the new goal almost certainly means states will step up the pace of nutrient control efforts. Some estimates suggest that nutrient reductions about twice the current goals would be needed to significantly improve dissolved oxygen levels in much of the Chesapeake.
“In all likelihood, we will have to do more in the next 11 years than we have in the past 12,” said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. “In many areas, we will not only be challenging the limits of technology, but changing existing paradigms.”
That means that farmers, wastewater treatment plant operators and others who have been working to achieve the present nutrient goals will almost certainly be asked to do more.
That’s already adding confusion to cleanup efforts. Wastewater treatment plant operators planning upgrades, for example, are worried that their improvements will be outdated before they’re even completed.
Such confusion could slow down the cleanup effort, adding a sense of urgency to develop a clear guide to future actions.
“The importance of the timeline is to try to reduce the uncertainty that the whole Bay [TMDL] listing has imposed on the cleanup,” said Alan Pollock, Chesapeake Bay Program manager for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
“The idea is to have things tied down as much as possible, so people know what’s happening and when and where we’re going,” said Pollock, who leads a group that is developing a workplan for the time line.
Alarmed over the regulatory implications and potential costs of a TMDL, the Virginia Association of Municipal Wastewater Agencies recently threatened to sue the EPA unless it could clarify the issue.
Officials from the EPA, VAMWA and Virginia met Oct. 20. Although they didn’t address all of VAMWA’s concerns, a large part of the conversation was focused on how to make the timeline binding.
“It would certainly give us some increased level of comfort if this process has been ‘memorialized’ and been signed onto by everybody in a public sort of way,” said David Evans, an attorney for VAMWA.
One possibility would be a directive signed by the Chesapeake Executive Council, possibly next year. Directives don’t have the force of law, but because the council includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the EPA administrator and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission (representing state legislatures), directives are formal guides for future policy.
“It’s like an executive order,” Matuszeski said. “It’s a commitment by the Executive Branch in an area that doesn’t require a law, and it is something that is assumed to continue in future administrations unless specifically withdrawn. And we’ve never had a case where any future administration has ever wanted to withdraw from any directive.”
In addition, governors from Delaware, West Virginia and New York may also be asked to sign, as they will also be required to make nutrient reductions.
But the Bay states may not have the final word on the issue. While the Bay Program can establish nutrient and sediment reductions for a clean Bay, its answer may not be the same as what comes from a separate EPA activity.
The agency is developing the first-ever nutrient criteria for the nation’s waters. Once the criteria are established, states are expected to adopt them as water quality standards to be used — and enforced — in water discharge permits.
No one knows what those criteria will be. A major concern is that the Bay Program and the EPA use the same method to develop criteria so they do not end up with different requirements. Efforts are under way to reach some agreement between the Bay Program and the EPA over how to make that happen.
If that isn’t done quickly, officials worry people will balk at further nutrient reductions. They say getting everyone to adhere to the new timeline is a critical first step in showing people that the Bay Program has mapped where it is going.
“It’s the only way we can get to the 2010 goal and have some sense of security for those subject to actions under the plan that the rules are not going to change, and they they are not going to end up being asked to do more, or less, than they originally thought,” Matuszeski said. “We want to make sure that we only ask people to try to achieve one set of goals by 2010.
Putting the Pieces Together
The cleanup timeline seeks to weave together several existing Bay Program efforts with new TMDL requirements to reach a clean Bay by 2010.
Right now, states are committed to achieving a 40 percent nutrient reduction (measured from a 1985 baseline) by the end of next year, and then capping nutrient inputs at those levels.
Further nutrient and sediment reductions will be needed to clean up the Bay, though.
Separately, the EPA is developing nutrient criteria for rivers, lakes and estuaries, and expects states to adopt water quality standards — which in turn would become enforceable discharge limits in permits for wastewater treatment plants and others.
A key part of the Bay Program process is making sure that its goals are the same — or can be substituted for — the EPA’s nutrient criteria.
- Begin the process of selecting water quality conditions and living resource goals that would constitute a “clean” Chesapeake Bay, and begin the process of adapting nutrient criteria to achieve that goal.
- Virginia adopts nutrient and sediment reduction goals as part of its tributary strategies for the Rappahannock, York and James rivers and the Eastern Shore.
- States begin the development of TMDLs for small tributaries that are impaired by nutrients.
- States develop and begin to implement strategies to maintain a cap on nutrient inputs as the 40 percent reduction is achieved. The strategies are due Jan. 1, 2001.
- By the end of the year, the states and the EPA are to agree on the environmental endpoints for different regions of the Bay and its tidal tributaries, as well as the nutrient and sediment reductions needed to reach those endpoints.
- Secure agreement from the EPA that the selected endpoints, if adopted as state nutrient standards, would result in a “clean” Chesapeake that would be delisted once the goals are achieved.
- States will begin the process of developing water quality standards for dissolved oxygen and other parameters needed to meet environmental endpoints.
- Revise Bay Program tributary strategies to reflect new nutrient and sediment reductions and incorporate those into the cap strategies.
- States will make best efforts to adopt revised water quality standards for the Bay and tidal rivers.
- Complete a comprehensive evaluation to determine if any changes are needed in nutrient and sediment reduction goals to ensure the Bay and its tidal rivers can be delisted by 2010.
- Achieve nutrient reductions needed to achieve water quality standards for the Bay and its tidal tributaries.
- If nutrient reductions are successful, delist the Bay and its tidal tributaries.
- If unsuccessful, determine where additional reductions are needed and establish a TMDL that will achieve the water quality standards.
Why 40 Percent Adds up to Much Less
In 1987, the Bay states agreed to reduce nutrients entering the Bay 40 percent by 2000.
That was based on the knowledge that nitrogen and phosphorus affect water quality by spurring blooms of algae that cloud the water, blocking sunlight to important underwater grasses. When algae die, they sink to the bottom and decay in a process that robs the water of oxygen needed by fish and other species.
The 40 percent goal was later defined as a 40 percent reduction in “controllable” nutrients. Among the uncontrollable sources of nitrogen and phosphorus were natural background sources, air pollution, and those from portions of the watershed in New York, Delaware and West Virginia.
So many nutrients were considered “uncontrollable,” that the 40 percent reduction actually adds up to only a 21 percent reduction for nitrogen, and a 28 percent reduction for phosphorus.
The EPA has extended its comment period on proposed new TMDL rules until Jan. 20. Originally, the deadline was Oct. 22. Copies of the proposed rules are available at www.epa.gov/owow/tmdl/