The biggest questions about the Bay cleanup may be the most important: How much will it cost, and where will the money come from?

According to Bay Program figures, fully implementing tributary strategies written by the states could cost about $28 billion in upfront capital costs, plus another $2.7 billion in costs that would recur each year, such as the operation and maintenance of wastewater treatment plants and stormwater controls, as well as annual payments to farmers for conservation efforts.

Those estimates have drawn skepticism because states included many high-cost practices, such as retrofitting stormwater controls on old development sites and replacing existing septic systems, which deliver relatively small nutrient reductions. Some strategies included actions covered by regulations and—in some cases—included court-ordered water quality actions that had minimal benefits to the Bay.

As a result, the Bay Program analysis of the tributary strategies showed that about 80 percent of the nutrient reductions, those from agriculture and wastewater discharges, could be achieved for about 20 percent of the total cost.

A report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an independent panel representing state legislatures, reached similar conclusions.

By widely using the six most economical nutrient control techniques, 78 percent of the region’s nitrogen reduction goal, 75 percent of its phosphorus goal and all of its sediment goal can be accomplished for $623 million a year, according to the commission’s report. The six practices included:

  • Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrades: upgrading plants throughout the watershed nearly to limit of technology performance levels for nutrient removal.
  • Diet & Feed Adjustments: altering feed for livestock to reduce nutrients in manure.
  • Traditional Nutrient Management: agricultural plans that optimize fertilizer applications to the needs of crops being grown on a particular field to minimize the potential for runoff.
  • Enhanced Nutrient Management: plans that reduce nitrogen applications a further 15 percent below those in traditional nutrient management plans. Traditional plans typically assume optimal growing conditions, which rarely materialize, leaving unused nutrients in the ground.
  • Cover Crops: small grains planted soon after harvest in the fall that are highly effective at absorbing excess nitrogen in the soil.
  • Conservation Tillage: a set of planting techniques that use minimal soil cultivation to reduce erosion and associated nutrient losses.

To pay for the cleanup, a Chesapeake Bay Watershed Blue Ribbon Finance Panel last year recommended the creation of a “finance authority” that would collect money from the federal and state governments and distribute it throughout the watershed to support the most beneficial—and cost-effective—nutrient and sediment control actions.

The authority, which could make both low-interest loans and outright grants, would be overseen by a board representing state governments, federal agencies, stakeholders and others.

The blue ribbon panel recommended that the authority be capitalized with $15 billion, of which 80 percent would come from the federal government over six years. The rest would come from the states. In addition, the states would identify other revenue to support for authority over the long term.

The Blue Ribbon Finance Panel’s report, “Saving a National Treasure: Financing the Cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay” is on the Bay Program’s web site at: www.chesapeakebay.net/blueribbon.htm

The Chesapeake Bay Commission’s report, “Cost-Effective Strategies For the Bay,” is on the commission’s web site at: www.chesbay.state.va.us