The Chesapeake Bay region has reached the halfway mark toward its Bay cleanup goal in terms of time — but not in terms of accomplishments.While efforts so far appear to have spurred improvements in the Bay’s health, environmentalists called the progress “fragile.” (Dave Harp)

July 1 marked the midpoint to the 2025 deadline for taking all actions needed to stem the tide of water-fouling nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay, which would ultimately result in clearer water, less algae and an end to its summer oxygen-starved dead zone.

But the region only achieved about 40 percent of its nitrogen reduction through the end of last year. Not only was that short of the halfway mark, it was even further away from the actual goal for the end of the year — a 60 percent reduction.

“Unless the states and their federal partners expand their efforts and push harder, the Bay and its rivers and streams may never be saved,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which recently released its own analysis of efforts so far.

Making up lost ground and getting to the finish line on time will require ramped-up efforts for pollution sources where progress has been slow — such as agriculture and stormwater — and in places clearly lagging, especially Pennsylvania.

To that end, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in June sent a letter to all of the states in the watershed telling them that new cleanup plans to guide efforts through 2025 will need to show how states will make up shortfalls and provide adequate funding and oversight to meet their Bay cleanup obligations.

But the agency singled out Pennsylvania for special scrutiny, saying the state is “significantly off track” to meet nutrient reduction goals and warning that it could take new actions — the EPA has twice temporarily withheld funding — if the state doesn’t pick up the pace.

Through the end of last year, Bay Program data indicate that since 2010, Pennsylvania only achieved 18 percent of its nitrogen reduction goal— leaving 82 percent to be achieved between now and 2025. Put another way: In less than eight years, the state would have to reduce 2.5 times as much nitrogen as it has in the last 32 years.

But Bay Program figures show challenges extend beyond Pennsylvania. While other states have mostly done better, they did so in large part by upgrading wastewater treatment plants, a source of reductions that is nearly exhausted, as most plants in the watershed have now installed state-of-the-art nutrient removal technology.

“It’s clear that Maryland and Virginia are carrying the [Baywide] improvements, and mostly by tackling wastewater,” Baker said. “As the clock ticks down to 2025, we know the second half is going to be more difficult.”

The story was better for phosphorus, where the region achieved 90 percent of its goal. But it is nitrogen that largely drives algae growth in the salty Bay during most of the year (phosphorus tends to feed algae in freshwater), and controlling it has long proved to be problematic. Algae cloud Bay waters, causing die-backs of critical underwater grass habitat, and when the algae die, they sink to the bottom and are decomposed in a process that creates an oxygen-starved “dead zone” that is intolerable to most aquatic life.

Though the region is short of its cleanup goals, Baker said there’s evidence that pollution reduction efforts are paying off. Underwater grasses last year were more abundant than they had been in decades. Studies have shown evidence of slight improvements in the dead zone. Water clarity has also improved in recent years.

“We are at a critical point in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. We are seeing some incredible progress,” said Chante Coleman, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, who joined Baker at a recent news conference to discuss cleanup efforts.

While efforts so far appear to have spurred improvements in the Bay’s health, environmentalists called the recovery “fragile,” and Baker cautioned against too much optimism, noting that Lake Erie was declared recovered from nutrient pollution decades ago but is now “worse than ever.”

Missed targets

The 2017 targets were the latest to be missed since the state-federal Bay Program set its first nutrient reduction goal in 1987. The target set then, for a 40 percent reduction by 2000, was missed, as was a follow-up goal for 2010.

That year, the EPA imposed a new, more regulatory cleanup plan intended to end further delays. The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, commonly called a pollution diet, set nutrient targets for each state and major river, with plans to achieve them required by 2025. As an interim goal, 60 percent of needed cleanup actions were to be taken by the end of last year. To keep efforts on track, the EPA required states to submit detailed “watershed implementation plans” showing how they would meet their goals, along with two-year “milestone” check-ins on progress. It also required a “midpoint assessment” at the halfway point to incorporate new science and make whatever course corrections might be needed to achieve the 2025 goal.

The EPA will issue its official review of progress in July. But Bay Program computer model estimates through the end of last year show only Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia met their 60 percent goals for both nitrogen and phosphorus.

Overall, they show:

  • Pennsylvania achieved 18 percent of its nitrogen goal and 58 percent of its phosphorus goal.
  • Maryland achieved 53 percent of its nitrogen goal and 127 percent of its phosphorus goal.
  • Virginia achieved 82 percent of its nitrogen goal and 101 percent of its phosphorus goal.
  • West Virginia achieved 89 percent of its nitrogen goal and 94 percent of its phosphorus goal.
  • Delaware achieved 33 percent of its nitrogen goal and 110 percent of its phosphorus goal.
  • The District of Columbia achieved 258 percent of its nitrogen goal, and 100 percent of its phosphorus goal.
  • New York nitrogen loads increased by 4 percent, while phosphorus decreased 69 percent.

Even where progress was on or ahead of schedule, the overall figures mask some problematic trends. Everyplace except New York, which has been plagued with problems at its largest wastewater treatment facility, far exceeded their wastewater goals. Although wastewater plants are not the largest cumulative source of nutrient pollution, they accounted for 70 percent of the watershed’s nitrogen reductions from 2010 through 2017, and as a group have exceeded their 2025 goals.

But, because most wastewater plants are now upgraded, nutrient discharges from many of those facilities are likely to increase as population growth and development spurs an increase in the volume of water they treat between now and the cleanup deadline. That means more effort will be needed from areas where progress has been more difficult, such as stormwater and agriculture. All jurisdictions missed their nitrogen goals for stormwater, and all except West Virginia missed them for agriculture.

The Bay’s underwater grasses, such as eelgrass, are harmed when too much nitrogen clouds the water, blocking the sunlight they need to grow. (Dave Harp)Nitrogen from stormwater runoff, as well as septic tanks, has ticked upward, while the rate of reductions from agriculture — the largest source of nutrients to the Bay — has been stagnant. Since 2010, computer model figures show that farms in the region have reduced nitrogen runoff in the watershed as a whole by about 1 million pounds a year, about the same rate as before the TMDL was established.

With less than eight years to reach the pollution diet’s ultimate goal, and having to address tougher-to-control sources to get there, the region clearly faces a tall order.

Further, the job is expected to get slightly harder in July. The Bay Program, using numbers from a new, updated computer model that incorporates a variety of new information and reflects new science, is expected to adopt new state cleanup targets to guide efforts through 2025. Generally, those numbers show less progress than did the old model, which was used to evaluate the impact of actions through 2017.

In preliminary numbers, Maryland appears to be hardest hit by the changes. But in a statement, Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state “is fully committed and will continue to press all of our Bay state partners to do what it takes to get the job done so we can stay on track for one of the biggest environmental success stories in a century.”

He praised the EPA’s work to bring “sound science” into the midpoint assessment process but also said the agency needed to help through “robust funding and strong enforcement.”

Getting to the finish line

When those updated cleanup targets are set, it will kick off a yearlong effort for states to draft new watershed implementation plans outlining what they will do to reach their 2025 Bay restoration goals.

In a letter sent to the states in June, the EPA — which has the legal responsibility to oversee the Bay cleanup — said it expects those plans to provide evidence that states have adequate financial and technical assistance, cost-share and regulatory programs in place to oversee stormwater and agricultural runoff reduction efforts. It also said states need to have programs in place capable of tracking the installation of various pollution control practices  and verifying that they continue to work over time. The EPA also said it wants states to involve local governments in their cleanup plan development and to set some sort of local pollution reduction goals to help achieve nutrient targets.

The EPA added that it will evaluate progress between now and 2025 “and may take appropriate federal actions for those jurisdictions that are not making adequate progress toward meeting their [pollution reduction] planning targets.”

The agency singled out Pennsylvania for increased oversight. In the letter, the EPA restated concerns it has voiced in the past about the state’s significant shortfalls — not just in actual progress, but in committing to the level of funding, staffing and regulations needed to make progress.

Federal regulators want the state to clearly identify the most effective pollution control practices and the areas where they can most effectively be employed to curb nutrient-laden runoff. And they want the state to ensure that funding is prioritized to deploy those practices within targeted areas. All federal Bay-related grants have to go into those priority areas, the agency said.

In addition, the EPA letter directs the state to make other policy, legislative and regulatory changes needed to meet goals, including restrictions on such harmful actions as spreading manure during winter months. The agency recommends creating new programs to transport manure out of areas with an excess of animal wastes and establishing an agricultural cost-share program, as other states have done, which can be used to target farms in priority areas. The EPA also wants Pennsylvania to achieve greater nutrient reductions from wastewater treatment plants to make up for shortfalls in curbing stormwater and agricultural runoff.

Deborah Klenotic, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the state is still reviewing the letter and that “Pennsylvania remains committed to its 2025 Bay TMDL goals and is bringing unprecedented levels of partnership, ideas, resources and commitment to the challenge.”

The state, she noted, has already launched an expansive planning process to write new watershed implementation plans that involves local governments and other stakeholders, and will ultimately result in county-level cleanup targets.

Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office, said the letter makes it clear that Pennsylvania’s new plans “must provide a higher level of specificity in order to provide the EPA, the other jurisdictional partners and the public with sufficient reasonable assurance that Pennsylvania can achieve their goals by 2025.”

Indeed, in a recent letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan lamented that cleanup efforts would be “much further along” if all other states had made as much progress as his state. “Fair and consistent accountability among the jurisdictions and strong oversight from our federal partners is absolutely critical,” he wrote.

If the state keeps falling short, the EPA letter held out the possibility of taking “backstop” actions against it, which include increased environmental enforcement activity in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed; requiring new discharge permits for currently unregulated smaller-scale animal farming operations; mandating greater reductions from wastewater treatment plants; and directing grants to only be used for specific purposes if the agency believes the state is not adequately targeting projects.

The EPA has twice temporarily withheld grant funding from the state because of shortcomings and has been giving greater scrutiny to the state’s programs and progress.

But finding ways to pressure Pennsylvania has proven elusive. In the past, the EPA has resisted the idea of regulating smaller animal operations because the state has so many of them. And with less than 10 percent of its nitrogen coming from wastewater treatment plants, a further crackdown there would produce only small improvements.

Even environmental groups are split over what to do about Pennsylvania.

Baker called for the EPA to exercise its backstop authority under the TMDL and impose new sanctions against Pennsylvania and any other state that falls behind. “If EPA remains unwilling to impose backstops,” he said at the news conference, then the agency’s words were “empty threats.”

But Coleman said many of her coalition’s members would oppose taking backstop actions against Pennsylvania, especially if they involve withholding funds.

“Pennsylvania is so far behind in the cleanup that taking away money at this point would be quite detrimental to the cleanup as a whole,” she said.