A five-year strategic plan being drafted by the EPA indicates what many officials have privately acknowledged for years—the region will miss its goal of cleaning the Chesapeake by 2010, and likely by a wide margin.

The draft plan anticipates that the Bay will meet only 40 percent of its dissolved oxygen goal, and just 45 percent of its underwater grass goal by the end of the decade only slight improvements over conditions seen today.

Those poor water quality conditions reflect the agency’s expectation that jurisdictions within the watershed will fall well short of their nutrient and sediment reduction goals. The EPA predicts the states will achieve just 59 percent of their nitrogen reduction goals (measured from a 1985 baseline), 74 percent of their phosphorus goals and 74 percent of their sediment goals by 2010.

The estimates were prepared for a broader agencywide strategic plan that outlines what the EPA expects to achieve in all the programs it oversees—from air pollution to waste management—between the years 2006 and 2011. The Chesapeake Bay portion of the plan was released to state officials for review in February.

A public draft of the agency’s entire plan is expected to be released for review in May. A final document, which is required by law, will go to Congress by Sept. 30.

Because the planning period ends in 2011, it does not indicate when officials anticipate the Bay Program goal of cleaning up the Chesapeake will be achieved. But a memo accompanying the draft said current trends suggest that will happen “well beyond 2010.” Background information explaining methodology used suggests nutrient and sediment reduction goals would not be reached until sometime after 2020.

The estimates are based on the current rate of cleanup activities, but incorporate some recent state actions such as Maryland’s “flush tax,” which will accelerate wastewater treatment plant upgrade rates over that of recent years.

“That doesn’t mean that some other trend lines are not realistic,” said EPA Region III administrator Donald Welsh. The projections could underestimate progress if states take further actions to accelerate nutrient reduction efforts, he said.

The likelihood of missing the 2010 deadline is hardly a surprise. At Bay meetings over the past two years, the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania had warned that the deadline would be missed unless there was a major infusion of federal funding into the region. Even with adequate funding, several reports have indicated that achieving the needed nutrient and sediment reductions within such a short time frame would be a monumental hurdle.

Yet officials have been reluctant to flatly predict that the deadline would be missed. In part, that was driven by concern that such an admission would reduce pressure on state and federal agencies to provide adequate funding for the Bay cleanup.

The EPA’s new figures, in contrast, represent a growing concern that sticking with unrealistic projections has undercut the credibility of the Bay cleanup effort. Recent news reports and an audit by the congressional Government Accountability Office contended that the Bay Program had provided overly optimistic assessments of cleanup efforts in the past. At a time when billions of dollars are needed to restore the Bay, many officials believe that continually missing aggressive goals makes the Bay cleanup effort look ineffective—and therefore less likely to gain additional federal support.

“We need to be able to show that the measurements we are using are based on something hard,” Welsh said. “It is certainly not our intention to change the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Program.”

Indeed, while the time frame may change, the ultimate goal of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement is to have the Bay achieve water quality standards, allowing it to be removed from the EPA’s list of impaired waters—also known as the “dirty waters” list. Meeting water quality standards is required by the Clean Water Act—regardless of any Bay commitment. The 2000 agreement had sought to speed up the process.

The draft EPA plan is not the only recent document that cast doubt on the region’s ability to meet the 2010 goal. In February, Maryland released an implementation plan for its tributary strategies that showed numerous implementation shortfalls for nutrient and sediment control practices by 2010. The projections were based on current and projected funding levels.

“We are going to try as hard as we can.” said Department of Natural Resources Secretary Ron Franks, but “resources are critical.” Nonetheless, he said it was too soon to flatly predict the 2010 goal will be missed. A Bay Program committee is reviewing the goals and expects to make a report about future directions in 2008. “Everyone will see how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, and whether we have the resources to get there.”

Roy Hoagland, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the magnitude of the EPA’s projected shortfall for 2010 “alarming.” But he criticized the agency for offering no way to speed cleanup implementation. Rather, he said, the Bush administration has proposed cutting millions of dollars in its 2007 budget from programs that would directly, or indirectly, help the Chesapeake.

“What is very depressing about the material they presented is that there is no leadership being shown by the federal government to implement the solutions that we know will solve the problem,” he said. “We know what we need to do. We have the science, we have the solutions, we just need to implement them. This strategic plan says nothing, and provides no leadership from EPA, on what we are going to do to move the ball forward.”

David Bancroft, president of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, called the strategic plan figures “sobering,” and noted that the only acceleration in nutrient reduction progress in the projections comes from wastewater treatment plants where stepped-up funding is anticipated. “This should be a clarion call to the public and elected officials to increase funding for Bay restoration,” he said.

While federal funding has remained steady or declined for various programs, state officials believe some acceleration is possible in future years because of increased state funding.

In addition to Maryland’s fee on households discharging to wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, Pennsylvania voters last year approved a bond measure, dubbed “Growing Greener,” that supports a host of environmental programs, including some that would benefit the Bay.

This year, the Virginia General Assembly is likely to approve a budget that would provide a record $200 million for the Bay cleanup, but it stopped short of establishing a dedicated funding source for future years,

Only Maryland has developed tributary strategies—or river specific cleanup plans—that include a timeframe. So while the EPA anticipates some acceleration from Maryland, its strategic plan does not count on more rapid implementation by other states that would change future projections.

The EPA’s projections, which are based on data from past water quality monitoring and projected future nutrient and sediment control implementation, estimate that:

  • The Bay will attain about 40 percent of its 185,000-acre goal for underwater grasses this year, and that will increase to 44 percent in 2010 and 45 percent in 2011.
  • About 35 percent of the Bay’s water will meet new dissolved oxygen standards this year, and that will increase to about 39 percent in 2010 and 40 percent in 2011.
  • States will achieved 44 percent of the needed nitrogen reductions this year, a figure that would increase to 56 percent in 2010 and 59 percent in 2011.
  • States will achieve 61 percent of their phosphorus goals this year, which would increase to 72 percent in 2010 and 74 percent in 2011.
  • States will achieve 57 percent of their sediment goals this year, a figure that increases to 71 percent in 2010 and 74 percent in 2011.

Nutrient Goals & Requirements

The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus are considered the main threats to the health of the Bay because they spur algae blooms that cloud the water, resulting in the die-off of underwater grass beds, which provide critical food and habitat for a host of fish, shellfish and waterfowl. When the algae die, they decompose in a process that depletes oxygen from the water, rendering huge areas off-limits to aquatic life.

Reducing nutrients has been a goal of the Bay Program since the mid-1980s. In 1987, it adopted its first specific nutrient reduction goal, calling for a 40 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus by 2000—a goal that was missed.

In 2000, the Bay Program partnership—which includes the states of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the District of Columbia; the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Commission—agreed to the Chesapeake 2000 agreement which called for restoring Bay water quality by 2010.

Although that time frame will likely be missed, the nutrient reductions needed to meet the new goal are different from earlier objectives. They are tied to new water quality standards that have been adopted by states with tidal waters. Unlike earlier goals, meeting those standards is a matter of law—the federal Clean Water Act requires it.

Missing the 2010 goal doesn’t change those standards. But it will likely trigger the use of new regulatory actions under the Clean Water Act as the EPA will be required, by 2011, to impose a more formal cleanup plan known as a Total Maximum Daily Load.