Pennsylvania has completed a new tributary strategy to guide the nutrient reduction efforts in its portion of the Susquehanna and Potomac river basins. But like the initial strategy released in spring 1994, it falls short of achieving its 40 percent nutrient reduction goal.
State officials say they will ultimately make the full reduction -- the question is when.
"We're committed to that goal," said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge at the Nov. 30 Executive Council meeting. "We've come a long way. We know we have a long way to go. And we won't give up until we get there."
Like the earlier strategy, the new plan relies almost entirely on controlling runoff pollution from "non-point" sources such as farms and urban areas. Those tactics are expected to achieve 91 percent of the 19.8 million pound-a-year nitrogen reduction goal and 94 percent of the 2.5 million pound phosphorus reduction goal. Excess amounts of those nutrients are considered to be the Bay's major water pollution problem.
In a change, though, the strategy opens the door to additional wastewater treatment plant controls pending the outcome of a Bay Program analysis on the cost and effectiveness of new technologies. Previously, state officials had expressed skepticism about such Òpoint sourceÓ controls.
Controlling nitrogen at wastewater treatment plants has been controversial in Pennsylvania because of its high cost and because nitrogen reductions provide little water quality benefit to the state's fresh water rivers and streams. Unlike phosphorus, which will spur algae blooms in fresh water, nitrogen is mostly a problem in salt water portions of the Bay -- far away from Pennsylvania.
But recent work has suggested that new biological nutrient removal -- or BNR -- technologies can dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen in wastewater discharges at far lower costs than anticipated in the state's earlier strategy.
"I think we're moving more in that direction," said Keith Gentzler, of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Water Management. "We're seriously looking at it. When we did the first draft of the strategy, we thought putting BNR at point sources was prohibitively expensive and wasn't going to happen."
The earlier strategy said retrofitting a treatment plant with BNR could cost $172 per household. But in recent years, treatment plants in Maryland and Virginia have shown the technology is less costly.
"We are encouraged to see them looking seriously at point sources now," said Lamonte Garber of the Pennsylvania office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who noted the state would need wastewater plant controls to help nutrient reductions keep pace with growth.
Still, the strategy's largest nutrient reductions come from existing programs that promote voluntary runoff control conservation practices on agricultural lands, and through the state's nutrient management law which requires farms with large concentrations of animals to write and implement nutrient management plans to control runoff. Combined, those practices would account for more than three-quarters of the state's nitrogen reduction.
Most of the remaining nitrogen reductions would come from a variety of other programs, including efforts to protect stream corridors and plant forest buffers, reduce runoff from barnyards and improved stormwater controls for urban areas.
For phosphorus, the nutrient management law, farm conservation practices and controls at wastewater treatment plants would each account for about 30 percent of the expected reductions. A variety of other agricultural programs and stormwater controls would achieve further reductions, according to the report.
Garber said the strategy's estimates for the nutrient management law -- which is only now beginning to be implemented -- seemed optimistic because many variables could affect the actual reductions.
In addition, Garber expressed concern that much of the staff and responsibility for implementing the law was transferred away from the state Department of Environmental Protection to the Department of Agriculture. "To us, there is plenty of work for both departments to do," Garber said. "The program has both voluntary and mandatory parts, and DEP needs people to do it."
In all, figures presented in the Pennsylvania strategy add up like this:
To meet the 40 percent reduction goal, Pennsylvania must reduce nitrogen "loads" leaving the state by 19.8 million pounds a year. From 1985 -- the baseline for the reduction -- through 1994, nitrogen loads were cut by 4.1 million pounds. Plans outlined in the strategy would bring the total reduction to 18 million pounds by 2000 -- or 91 percent of the goal.
The state must reduce annual phosphorus by 2.5 million pounds to meet the goal. By 1994, that had been reduced by about 1.2 million pounds. The strategy would achieve reductions of 2.3 million pounds by 2000 -- or 94 percent of the goal.
The nitrogen and phosphorus shortfalls in the new strategy were discovered to be slightly less than previously thought after a yearlong monitoring program made a better accounting of actual nitrogen and phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment plants. In particular, the study found that greater phosphorus reductions were occurring earlier than expected because of limits on discharge permits and from the 1990 phosphate detergent ban.
The strategy does not account for increased nutrient loads resulting from population growth and land use changes since 1985, so the actual shortfall is greater than those figures indicate. Estimates regarding increased nutrient loads stemming from growth vary, but the strategy said annual increases of 2.9 million pounds of nitrogen and 700,000 pounds of phosphorus were a "reasonable estimate."
The strategy suggests a variety of options to help close the gap, in addition to wastewater treatment plant controls. Those include potential nutrient reductions for septic systems, reducing the use of fertilizers for non-agricultural purposes such as lawns and golf courses, and additional runoff controls for urban and suburban areas.
The strategy also suggests exploring nutrient "trading" scenarios in which reduction surpluses in one state could be used to offset shortfalls in another. Also, it suggests that air pollution controls that reduce nitrogen deposition in the watershed be counted toward the goal. Previously, the Bay states have considered nutrients from air pollution to be "uncontrollable" and not counted toward the nutrient goal.
Garber said one issue raised in the strategy -- that the effectiveness of best management practices used to control runoff be reviewed -- had great potential to increase stream protection efforts. As more information becomes available, it is likely that stream buffers would provide more cost-effective means of reducing runoff while also improving habitat in the streams.
"With practices like streambank fencing you get a wide range of ecological benefits, such as habitat improvement, that complement nutrient reduction," Garber said. "When you're focused solely on nutrients, its hard to factor that into consideration, but we need to, somehow."
Officials say the strategy -- though leaving a shortfall -- is realistic because it is based on existing programs and uses funding sources that the state anticipates will be available through those programs. The combined costs of the nonpoint source control programs would be more than $103 million from 1995 through 1999. The strategy specifically states that the Pennsylvania "will not establish unfunded mandates or initiatives to achieve the targeted goals."
We figured the best policy was, if we didn't have funded programs in place, we wouldn't list them," Gentzler said. "It's better to admit the shortfall."
But, he added, "the big question is not whether Pennsylvania is committed to closing the shortfall. We are. The question is time."
To help speed implementation, Garber said the state needs to find creative funding sources. "We're not going to make it with existing resources," he said. "We have to find other funding alternatives."
Pennsylvania's nutrient reduction strategy was developed in response to a 1992 pledge by Executive Council members to develop "tributary strategies" for each of the Bay's major tributaries that would outline specific actions to achieve the overall 40 percent nutrient reduction. The council agreed on that goal in the 1987 Bay Agreement, based on evidence that such a reduction would significantly improve the Bay's water quality.
When excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus enter the Bay, they spur algae blooms which block the sunlight needed by Bay grasses that provide important food and habitat for species ranging from ducks to blue crabs. When the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom and decomposes in a process that depletes the water of oxygen.
So far, Maryland has completed and is implementing strategies for each of its major rivers. The strategies, though, do not identify funding sources to meet the goal.
Virginia last fall completed a draft strategy for its portion of the Potomac River. It is expected to complete revisions to that strategy early this year and to begin work on plans for its other Bay tributaries.
The Executive Council is made up of the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel representing the legislatures of the three states; and the administrator of the EPA.