After more than a year of work, officials from the Bay states know how they are going to clean up the Chesapeake. At least on paper.
River-specific cleanup plans, called tributary strategies, are being finalized by all seven jurisdictions that are part of the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed.
While most of those strategies, which had been due April 30, were still works in progress in mid-May, they spell out the huge level of effort needed to turn back the clock on Bay water quality to achieve conditions not seen since the 1950s.
“The good news is that the states are proving that it is possible to restore the Bay,” said Kelly Shenk, of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. “They have put on paper the actions that need to be implemented. Now comes the difficult part: determining how to get those actions on the ground and implemented.”
Indeed. The actions outlined so far include unprecedented levels of nutrient controls throughout the watershed. Almost every acre of farmland in the watershed would have nutrient management plans to guide fertilizer and manure applications, as well as soil and water conservation plans.
The vast majority—possibly 2 million acres across the watershed—would be planted with cover crops each fall to soak up excess nutrients. Maryland alone is calling for a sevenfold increase in cover crops.
Thousands of acres of old urban areas would get costly stormwater retrofits to hold polluted runoff after rain storms. The use of high-tech, nutrient-removing septic systems would be required in Maryland and commonplace in Virginia. Huge amounts of streams would be planted with forest or grass buffers—including 50,000 miles in Virginia alone, or 86 percent of its stream mileage. Almost all major wastewater treatment plants, at least in Maryland and Virginia, will get upgrades.
The estimated tab in Maryland is $13.6 billion; in Virginia it’s $3.2 billion, and Pennsylvania’s plan was expected to top the $3 billion mark when completed later this year. When strategies from the District of Columbia, and the headwater states of West Virginia, Delaware and New York are added in, the total water quality tab could likely double the $10 billion tab estimated last year by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represents state legislatures.
Maryland officials say their costs were pushed sky-high out of fairness. The cheapest nutrient reductions come from agricultural lands, but the state has less farm acreage than the other jurisdictions.
The state’s tributary strategies call for higher level of implementation on those lands than is sought in the other states—100 percent in nutrient management versus 90–95 percent in Virginia. Rather than pressing farmers to do even more, officials ultimately decided to require similar levels of effort for other sources of nutrients.
“You could plant trees on 400,000 acres of agricultural land, and you could probably achieve a great reduction, but at the expense of the agriculture industry,” said Jamie Baxter, tributary strategy coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
That led to a call for more costly stormwater retrofits, and for all new septics to include nutrient control technology beginning next year, and all existing systems to eventually be upgraded or hooked into a sewer. Septics account for half of the $6.5 billion of the strategy cost, while achieving 8 percent of its nitrogen reductions.
Do most people believe such actions are possible? “No,” Baxter acknowledged. “Not with existing fiscal and staff resources.” Maryland started its tributary strategy development process by pulling together groups of stakeholders and gauging the levels of actions they were willing to take to clean up the Bay. “That only got us halfway,” Baxter said. “That is telling in what lays ahead.”
But Maryland is hardly alone. Virginia state officials also found themselves writing most of their tributary strategies. Many who worked on strategies in different states admit that many specifics in the emerging documents, which often call for near 100 percent implementation of “voluntary” actions, is enough to cause double-takes for most people.
“We’re coming up with a plan that—on paper—says we can reach these goals, but we are looking at extremely high levels of implementation,” said Kenn Pattison, of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Further, he said, “the funding to do this is just not there at this point.”
Pennsylvania officials—as well as those in other states that don’t border the Bay and share in its resources—may face especially daunting challenges. “How many city dwellers and farmers in Pennsylvania are ever going to see the Chesapeake Bay?” Pattison asked. “That is going to be the single largest impediment to implementing to these levels in Pennsylvania.”
The task that lays ahead, officials agree, is writing implementation plans that show how the strategies will go from paper documents to on-the-ground results.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation earlier this year criticized the emerging plans for lacking specific details about how they plans would be implemented and paid for. It labeled them “tributary tragedies.”
In unveiling draft strategies in April, Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Tayloe Murphy called the development process “difficult and challenging.” But he urged people who reviewed the strategies to think about what actions will be needed to make them a reality.
“They are not just meaningless words or hollow goals,” he said. “They reflect real resource improvement objectives, the achievement of which requires real action. Commitments that are not followed by an action agenda to implement them mislead the public into thinking that we have a strategy to accomplish our goals when, in fact, we do not.”
Specifically, Murphy said, “laws, statutes, authorities, roles and responsibilities” may need to change to make implementation possible.
The heads of environmental agencies from the Bay states scheduled a retreat in early June to discuss how to clear the implementation hurdles posed by the plans.
Some help on the financial front may come later this year, when a blue ribbon panel chaired by former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles will report on new and innovative funding opportunities to help in the Bay cleanup effort.
Officials describe the strategies as “living documents.” While they list a suite of actions that should achieve the cleanup goals, the actual on-the-ground activities may change over time. Some actions may prove more acceptable than others to landowners, others may be shown to be more—or less—effective than presently thought. And more effective actions will likely get wider use.
The strategies have already unveiled new programs not previously tried in the watershed—at least for nutrient control. For instance, Maryland is planning to reduce some nutrients through oyster aquaculture.
Nutrient trading is expected to be part of Pennsylvania’s program. It is also experimenting with a “yield reserve” program that will give farmers incentives to apply fewer nutrients than recommended to certain crops.
Ultimately, if the tributary strategies are successfully implemented, they would achieve a 48 percent reduction in nitrogen from mid-1980s levels, and a 53 percent reduction in phosphorus. According to computer models, that would achieve the new water quality criteria that state officials signed off on last year.
Those criteria, developed after three years of work, are aimed at meeting the needs of fish and shellfish throughout the Bay, and would return water quality to roughly what it was in the 1950s.
Whether the stakeholders around the Bay, from farmers to septic owners, from wastewater treatment plant operators to municipal officials, will sign off on that level of reduction remains to be seen.
“The goals were based on what the Bay needs and are noble goals, but they are not close to what stakeholders at this point in time are willing to do voluntarily on their own,” Baxter said. “There is a gap between how far they will go and what needs to be done.”
An independent scientific review released last year said the needed level of nutrient reductions could be achieved with existing technologies, and those expected to come into use within the near future. But it said achieving the nutrient reductions would likely take far longer than the Bay Program’s 2010 goal.
The fact that the job ahead is so difficult also reflects just how cavalier people were in their treatment of the Bay—and water quality in general—in past decades. “The magnitude of what’s needed to clean up the Bay is very telling of what we’ve actually done to it,” Baxter said.
Water quality in the Bay is degraded sharply from what it was a half-century ago, as the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus have roughly doubled. The nutrients have contributed to the dramatic reductions in the amount of underwater grasses that once filled the Bay and provided huge amounts of nursery habitats for fish and shellfish. They have also resulted in worsening oxygen-depleted dead zones on the Bay’s bottom, which squeeze fish out of cool, deep-water refuges during summer months, while smothering bottom dwelling organisms that can’t move. Increased nutrients are also blamed for growing number of harmful algae blooms.
Degraded habitats have limited the Chesapeake’s productivity. Many of the Bay’s historically important fish populations—blue crabs, oysters, shad, river herring and menhaden—are at or near record lows, and half of the striped bass are infected with mycobacteriosis, a chronic wasting disease.
But the Bay’s problems are not alone. Coastal waters around the nation and the world are degraded from nutrient pollution, with growing reports of dead zones, harmful algae blooms and seagrass loss.
Coping with nutrient pollution has been a vexing problem, largely because so much flows off the landscape and is difficult to control. That’s part of the reason the EPA has given the watershed more flexibility in crafting cleanup strategies than is usually the case.
Normally, waterbodies that fail to meet water quality standards are required to write regulatory cleanup strategies, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads. The EPA, at the request of the states, has given the region through 2010 to see if it can clean up the Bay faster and cheaper without a regulatory plan.
The emerging tributary strategies and implementation plans “go well beyond” the detail in most TMDLs written across the country, said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office.
But to warrant its exemption from the normal regulatory process, he said, the region’s plans ultimately will need to have measurable benchmarks to show that the measures called for on paper are being implemented on the land, and at a pace to meet the cleanup goal.
“We have got to make clear benchmarks of how we are going to accelerate implementation,” Batiuk said. “Otherwise, it is not showing that the states are going above and beyond—and being more effective in accelerating implementation—than under a regulatory TMDL.”
Tributary Strategies: Where they Stand
New York: Expects a draft “input deck”—a spreadsheet that describes each type of nutrient reduction activity and the extent to which it will be implemented—by mid-September, with a final list of actions by the end of December. Right now, it has no cost estimates, implementation schedule or implementation plan.
Pennsylvania: Officials were hoping to have an input deck of actions that meet nutrient goals by the end of May. Then the plan will go out for public comment, with a final strategy expected by the end of the year that would include cost estimates and elements of an implementation plan.
Maryland: Completed an input deck that meets statewide nutrient reduction goals in late April, but is still refining those numbers to meet individual tributary goals in the coming months. An executive summary has been completed, but individual tributary strategy documents are under development. The state has completed a cost estimate ($13.6 billion). Final strategies with implementation plans are expected by the end of the year.
Virginia: Completed an “input deck” in April that met nutrient reduction goals statewide, but not in each tributary. Draft strategies were written and submitted for public comment through early May. Final strategies were expected by the end of May, although implementation plans will still be under development. It completed a cost estimate ($3.2 billion.)
District of Columbia: The District completed a draft strategy in mid-May. No cost estimates were available.
West Virginia: The state has completed a draft tributary strategy that has been submitted for public comment. A final strategy is expected June 18. The strategy does not include an implementation plan. It does include a cost estimate ($231.6 million.)
Delaware: The state is completing its tributary strategies as required Total Maximum Daily Loads. Its TMDL for the Nanticoke River/Broad Creek is nearly complete. Others are being drafted. There are no cost estimates or implementation plans.
EPA: The agency has no input deck. It has pledged to achieve an 8 million pound nitrogen reduction through air pollution reductions, but model analyses estimating reductions to be achieved by 2010 from new and pending Clean Air Act regulations will not be completed until summer.