For months, federal officials have been saying that the Bay will be going on a pollution diet.
On July 1, with the clock ticking toward an end-of-the-year deadline, the EPA told states how many pounds the Bay needs to shed to become healthy again.
It appears it will need to shed about 63 million pounds of nitrogen, and 3.1 million pounds of phosphorus.
Curbing the Bay's diet is expected to drive billions of dollars of spending between now and the 2025 deadline to get it in shape. And after two failed efforts to meet goals set in the last 23 years, the EPA plans to issue a new regulatory plan to enforce the diet by the end of the year.
"Restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries will not be easy," said EPA Region III Administrator Shawn Garvin in a statement.
"While we all recognize that every jurisdiction within the watershed will have to make very difficult choices to reduce pollution, we also recognize that we must collectively accelerate our efforts if we are going to restore this national treasure as part of our legacy for future generations."
According to EPA computer models, the healthy "weight" for the Chesapeake is 187.4 million pounds of nitrogen and 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus washing off its watershed annually.
The EPA has subdivided those figures into targets for each state and tributary. With those figures in hand, states must now write detailed Watershed Implementation Plans, or WIPs, showing how the goals will be met. (See "The devil is in the details of Watershed Implementation Plans," on page 20.)
Although the numbers may shift slightly as the result of the WIPs or public comments, the bottom line figures are not expected to shift much before the EPA issues the final diet plan-called officially a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL for short-on Dec. 31.
The TMDL sets a maximum amount of nitrogen and phosphorus the Bay can receive each year while providing water quality suitable for crabs, waterfowl, fish-and even bottom-dwelling clams and worms.
Controlling the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus has been a cornerstone of the Chesapeake cleanup effort since the state-federal Bay Program was created in 1983.
The two are nutrients needed by all living things. They act as fertilizers for plants, and in excess amounts they spur algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grass beds that provide important habitat for juvenile crabs, fish and waterfowl. When the algae die, they are decomposed by bacteria in a process that depletes oxygen from the water, making huge parts of the Bay off-limits to fish during the summer, and sometimes spurring huge fish kills.
The Bay Program missed two previous goals to limit the Chesapeake's nutrient intake, most recently missing a commitment set in 2000 to deliver a clean Bay by the end of 2010. But the TMDL has more regulatory authority than those past plans.
In response to failed goals of the past, the EPA is developing what it considers a model TMDL for the Bay. It requires states to write detailed watershed implementation plans that show how they will meet their goals; two-year, enforceable milestones to ensure progress; and the threat of action by the EPA if states fall short.
But TMDL development has fallen behind schedule, and the tight time frame that the EPA has set to meet its end-of-the-year deadline has drawn criticism from some states.
The EPA had originally promised it would give the states the nutrient figures in April, but they were delayed by several factors, including upgrades to computer models.
The TMDL does not have to be completed until next May under a 1999 court settlement that required the TMDL. Nonetheless, the EPA-facing criticism for numerous past delays in cleanup progress-has maintained its commitment to complete the job by the end of the year.
"This is the first major commitment since the missed deadline of the 2000 agreement," Garvin said. "We are all committed to making sure that we put this in place as the next step toward restoring the Bay."
Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, in a June letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, said the agency was rushing the job by not allowing enough time for technical work to be completed, for the states to develop their watershed plans or for the public to comment.
"We remain disappointed that EPA is not utilizing the available time allowed under the consent decree to better ensure this highly complex TMDL is technically sound, and the citizens of Virginia are provided sufficient time to both understand the implications of the TMDL on their lives and offer constructive comment," he wrote.
While many environmental groups have cheered the EPA's tougher stance, local governments, agricultural organizations, home builders, wastewater treatment plant operators and others have expressed concern about being held accountable for potentially costly nutrient control actions. Many question whether the EPA is exceeding its authority.
As a result, the full effectiveness of the EPA's diet plan may not be known for some time. Legal challenges to the TMDL are anticipated, so the ultimate fate of the cleanup program may be settled in court.
Rick Parrish, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that many of the EPA's interpretations of its authority used in developing the Bay TMDL and its enforcement process appear to go beyond those in current TMDL regulations. But, he added, the section of the Clean Water Act that establishes the Bay Program gives the agency broader authority to require the development and implementation of management plans that ensure nutrient reduction goals are set.
"That is where the battle is going to play out in court," Parrish said.
Allocations by Numbers
The new allocations estimate that the seven jurisdictions in the Bay watershed will have to reduce the annual amount of nitrogen entering the Bay by about 63 million pounds, and phosphorus by 4.1 million pounds by 2025.
In comparison, the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay has been reduced by an estimated 91 million pounds over the last 25 years, and phosphorus by 7.5 million pounds.
The average rate of reduction since 1985 has been 3.64 million pounds a year for nitrogen, and 290,000 pounds a year for phosphorus.
The EPA is requiring states to achieve 60 percent of the new goal by the end of 2017. That means states would have to achieve about 4.5 million pounds a year in annual nitrogen reductions from 2010 through 2017. They would need to average about 230,000 pounds a year of phosphorus reductions during that same time.
Air to be Included
The final TMDL, issued in December, will differ from past cleanup goals, which have focused on controlling pollution only from the watershed. Because the TMDL has to reflect the "total" load, it will include a figure for the amount of nitrogen landing directly on the Bay and its tidal waters as fallout from the air.
In 2025, that would increase the 187.4 million pound nitrogen figure by 15.7 million pounds. In comparison, 17.4 million pounds of nitrogen lands directly on the Bay today, originating from nitrogen oxide pollution from power plants, cars and factories, and ammonia emissions largely from agriculture.
The updated timetable to develop the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load by the end of this year is tight:
- Aug. 15: The EPA will propose sediment loads for states and rivers.
- Sept. 1: Draft Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans are to be submitted to the EPA.
- Sept. 24 to Nov. 8: The draft Bay TMDL is released for public comment.
- Nov. 29: The final Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans are due.
- Dec. 31: The EPA establishes the TMDL.
Want to know how much money was spent on Chesapeake Bay restoration last year? Want to find out how much your state spent? And perhaps on fishery restoration? And specifically on oysters?
Check out ChesapeakeStat, an online tool unveiled in June at the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council.
The new tool is meant to increase accountability and improve coordination of Bay Program restoration activities. It is modeled after BayStat, an online tool that Maryland developed to provide information about its restoration work.
The Chesapeake Executive Council, in unveiling the program at its June 3 meeting, said it "allows Bay Program leaders, federal and state agencies, local governments, non-governmental organizations, and members of the public to use the same information to track and plan restoration efforts." It will also highlight local restoration activities and provide a map with photos of projects.
How well it lives up to its billing will be seen as the site matures and data is maintained, but out of the box it is a browser's delight. Those who want to know how healthy their local creek is may well find the answer at http://stat.chesapeakebay.net.
The public is invited to provide the Bay Program with ideas for improving the site.
The Executive Council establishes the policy agenda for the Chesapeake Bay Program and is represented by leaders from the EPA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, West Virginia, the District of Columbia and the Chesapeake Bay Commission.