Rivers around the watershed won’t get new nutrient and sediment reduction targets until fall 2002, as state and federal officials agreed to hold off setting tributary-specific cleanup goals for nine months.

That would allow time to finish work on new Bay water quality standards, and to fine-tune computer models that will estimate the level of nutrient and sediment reductions needed to achieve those standards.

“We need to be very sure of what that next target is going to be because that is going to essentially drive a decade of work,” said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office.

Officials still insist they will meet the ultimate 2010 deadline for cleaning up the Bay. At a recent media briefing, Bay Program officials emphasized the difficulty of their effort, which involves developing what’s believed to be the most complex set of water quality standards in the nation — but one that follows procedures recently recommended by the National Research Council.

They also re-emphasized the likelihood that those standards will require large new nutrient and sediment control efforts, which will mean new actions throughout the watershed.

“This particular effort is going to involve everyone doing everything everywhere,” said Diana Esher, acting director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. “So it is very important that the public understand what we want to accomplish, and how they are involved in helping us to get those on-the-ground reductions.”

Bay Program officials said the additional time will also be used to meet with stakeholder groups not only in the three Bay States, but also in New York, West Virginia and Delaware, which will be assigned nutrient reduction loads for the first time.

By taking extra time to meet with groups throughout the watershed, Batiuk said officials hope that people will begin to think of the new reductions as “their goal” and will be more willing to work toward achieving them.

“New York has to sign off on what gets adopted down here because their farmers, their communities are going to be affected by what Maryland and Virginia adopt as standards,” he said.

Originally, the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement called for establishing new water quality criteria that would describe a “clean Bay” by the end of this year and for setting the nutrient and sediment reduction goals that would attain those criteria throughout the Bay and its tidal tributaries.

Now, it’s expected that the criteria — which define the water quality conditions needed to support healthy aquatic life in the Chesapeake — will be finalized early next year. But the nutrient reduction goals won’t be set until September 2002.

New tributary strategies — cleanup plans that describe how the goals will be met for each major river — will be due a year later, in September 2003. Originally, the tributary plans were due at the end of 2002.

The Bay Program intends to allocate nutrient and sediment reductions to nine major tributaries around the Chesapeake. Those goals will be further divided among 37 subbasins, for which tributary strategies will be developed.

The delay will not change the 2010 deadline for attaining the new goal. Failure to meet that deadline would require the Bay states to develop an enforceable cleanup plan.

“We are very firm on our end goal,” Esher said. “We will remove the Bay from the impaired waters list by 2010. We will restore water quality in the Bay.”

Officials stressed that states will continue to implement their existing tributary strategies while work continues on standards development and goal setting. Those strategies were designed to meet the Bay Program’s original nutrient reduction goal, set in 1987, which was supposed to have been met last year. Officials hope to meet those goals by the end of 2002 or early 2003.

Mike Hirshfield, vice president for resource protection with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, criticized the Bay Program for not seeking to step up the pace of nutrient reduction efforts, even as officials acknowledged that far more action will be needed. “What I didn’t hear was a real sense of urgency that the reality of the numbers demands,” he said.

Preliminary estimates suggest that the region will need to slash nutrients by about 50 percent from 1985 levels to attain the new criteria. By comparison, the 1987 goal called for a 20 percent nitrogen reduction and a 31 percent phosphorus reduction. (The original 1987 goal called for a 40 percent nutrient reduction. But it was later redefined to include only certain “controllable” sources of nutrients.)

When reached in 2002, it will have taken the Bay states 15 years to reach the goal. Potentially, they will have to reach a goal one-and-a-half times larger in just seven years under the new schedule.

But Hirshfield said the timetable is likely to be even tighter. If new tributary strategies are not developed until late 2003, implementation likely will not begin until 2004 or 2005.

“Another nine months to get the numbers right and do the load allocations is fine,” he said. “But if it’s going to be 2004 before people say, ‘Oh my gosh, now it’s time to start implementing the plans.’ That just is not acceptable. We will waste half the decade.”

“The only reason to wait is if you are concerned that someone is accidentally going to reduce nutrients too much,” Hirshfield said.

The Bay Program hopes to meet the goal by 2010 because, as an “impaired” waterbody, the Chesapeake needs an enforceable cleanup plan known as a Total Maximum Daily Load. A court agreement reached two years ago in a Virginia case said the TMDL must be completed by spring 2011.

State and federal officials fear that a TMDL would prescribe such strict nutrient reductions on some sources of pollution that it would almost certainly spur lawsuits by some, such as wastewater treatment plants, who would likely be hard hit.

By pursuing its approach, which allows more flexibility in how nutrient reductions are achieved, Bay Program officials argue that they can stave off such suits while attaining nutrient reductions more quickly and cost effectively.