The Chesapeake Executive Council will meet on Halloween, but it appears unlikely that they will treat the public to a tentative nutrient reduction goal.
State and federal officials once had promised to release river-specific nutrient reduction goals when the governors, EPA administrator, Chesapeake Bay Commission chairman and District of Columbia mayor met this fall. But the goal-setting process is behind schedule and new river figures are not expected until the end of April.
In acknowledging that delay, officials this summer indicated they would release a rough Baywide estimate for the amount of nutrient reductions needed to clean up the Chesapeake.
Now, it appears that will not happen at the Oct. 31 meeting, either. After months of debate, state and federal officials failed to agree on a ballpark estimate of the level of nutrient reductions they will seek.
The crux of the problem involves the development of new water quality standards aimed at improving conditions for fish, underwater grass beds and other critical resources. Initial computer model estimates suggest that huge new efforts will be needed: for nitrogen, reductions two times greater or more than those achieved since 1985 might be required.
But technical details about how, and where, those standards are applied, and how rigorously they must be maintained, could dramatically affect the level of needed nutrient reductions. For example, if water quality standards are attained by averaging conditions over a period of time rather than meeting them all of the time, they would be easier to achieve.
“I think there are going to be some extremely difficult decisions that have to be made,” Rebecca Hanmer, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office told state officials at a meeting of the Bay Program’s Principals’ Staff Committee, which includes environmental agency department heads from the Bay states and regional EPA officials.
Maryland officials had strongly pushed for a Baywide number to jump-start lagging nutrient control efforts. They said they would extrapolate river-specific reductions from the Baywide estimate, thereby allowing their “tributary teams” — local stakeholder groups — to begin writing cleanup strategies for each major river, a job expected to take about a year.
“My goal, policy-wise, is to get on with this,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Chuck Fox. “Our tributary teams are waiting for a number.”
Maryland officials have said at other meetings that the credibility of the Bay Program — a voluntary state-federal partnership created in 1983 to restore the Chesapeake — was at stake as deadlines continue to slip.
The Chesapeake 2000 agreement called for the Bay to be cleaned up by 2010. But the agreement also called for setting new river-specific cleanup goals by the end of last year so cleanup plans could be written by the end of this year. The river goals have now been delayed twice — first to this September, then to next April — as state and federal officials work to finish writing the new water quality standards.
Representatives from most other jurisdictions, though, worried that the states would be seen as retreating from their goal if too large a number is presented to the public and a smaller reduction is eventually required.
“I don’t want the decision that we make today to be one that we have to backtrack from later,” said Tayloe Murphy, the Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources. “We don’t know what the final figure will be.”
In the end, the committee failed to agree on any number, or even a range of numbers to release. Members briefly contemplated having the Executive Council issue a statement that the new standards would require “significant” reductions beyond those set forth the 1987 Bay Agreement. That goal, set for the year 2000, still has not been met.
But the 1987 agreement called for achieving “at least” the specified level of reductions, so the proposed wording did not appreciably expand upon the 15-year-old commitment.
In the end, the group concluded it was probably best that the Executive Council issue no formal statement at all, although individual members may address the issue in their speeches.
The Bay Program faces a court-mandated 2011 deadline to clean up the Chesapeake, or it will be required to develop a largely regulatory program, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, which state officials had hoped to avoid.
From a regulatory perspective, setting new standards is critical because they are the benchmark that will determine whether the Bay is, in fact, cleaned up.
Although state and federal officials are jointly writing the standards, they have to be independently adopted by each state with tidal waters. That’s a process that could take three more years, during which the states might modify the standards. As a result, the figures released in April could later be modified.
Maryland officials argued that the Bay Program should set a voluntary goal, based on the best available information, and allow water quality standards to be developed on a longer, slower time line. The two goals could be merged later, after water quality standards are formally adopted by the states.
Others contend any goal not based strictly on the new standards would carry little weight, citing the failure to meet the 1987 goal.
Looming in the background, meanwhile, are growing concerns about how much the cleanup may cost.
All of the Bay states, as well as the federal government, are facing budget shortfalls. Preliminary estimates suggest that the level of nutrient reductions needed to clean the Chesapeake could cost in the range of $1 billion a year.
All three Bay states have already cut environmental programs to balance current budgets, and more cuts are likely in coming years. During a recent briefing to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a panel representing state legislatures, several members expressed concern about the potential price tag.
“It’s a dream that we will have more money in the future,” said Virginia State Sen. Bill Bolling. “In all likelihood, we won’t have the money that we’ve had.”
He said that if strict new standards are established, the states would be pushing the financial burden onto others.
“If we don’t have the money to pay the bills, the farmers are going to have to pay the bill, the local governments will have to pay the bill, and private industry will have to pay the bill,” Bolling said.
Commission Chairman Rep. Russ Fairchild, of Pennsylvania, said the Executive Council “didn’t do their homework on costs” when signing the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. But with the agreement in place, he said, the states need to work to find ways to increase support.
The commission has been leading an effort to win more support from Congress for the Bay cleanup, an effort that so far has succeeded in gaining more money in the Farm Bill for runoff control measures.
Others insisted that state support would increase as the economy recovered. “We know historically your economic dips are shorter than your booms,” said Del. Al Pollard of Virginia. “Now is exactly the time we should be adopting goals.”
Commission member and former Maryland state Sen. Bernie Fowler told his colleagues that the Bay was a “national treasure” that would provide greater economic benefits once it’s cleaned up.
“The absence of money in no way should slow us down.” Fowler said. “The Bay is not cleaned up yet, even though we’ve been talking about it for a long time. You get to the point where you are a little embarrassed.”
Executive Council to Meet at Anacostia Park
The Chesapeake Executive Council will meet in Washington’s Anacostia Park on Oct. 31 with the theme “Celebrating Thirty Years of the Clean Water Act, Challenges Then and Now.”
After a private meeting to discuss Bay issues, the public meeting will take place 2–3:30 p.m. The council includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the state legislatures.
Exhibits will be set up for the public to view while waiting for the meeting to begin, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will demonstrate their shallow water monitoring equipment along the banks of the Anacostia.
For information, contact the Bay Program office at 1-800-YOUR-BAY, or visit its web site, www.chesapeakebay.net