For nearly two decades, Bay cleanup advocates have worked to convince people throughout the Chesapeake's 64,000-square-mile watershed that "the Bay starts here."

This year, that message may hit closer to home than ever.

After new Chesapeake cleanup goals are set later this spring, state and federal officials are also expected to establish nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment limits for individual counties or even smaller geographic areas-at least in some regions.

In the past, those goals were assigned to large watershed areas, which often covered a dozen counties or more. By bringing them closer to home, officials hope to ensure that Bay water quality needs are considered when local decisions are made.

"We've got to do something different," said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science at the EPA's Bay Program Office in Annapolis. "We've got to bring a lot more people to the table feeling as if they've got a piece of the responsibility."

The Bay Program has set cleanup goals twice in the last two decades, and missed both by a wide mark; water quality in the Chesapeake remains little changed.

As a result, the EPA now faces a legal requirement to develop a new cleanup plan. As part of the plan, state and federal officials have said they want increased accountability to ensure it succeeds.

Some believe that establishing local goals could be one part of that improved accountability. Many of the decisions that affect nutrients stem from local zoning, or activities overseen by county conservation districts. But the broad goals of the past were far removed from local decision makers, who often saw little connection between their actions and the Bay-some didn't even know they existed.

Setting more local goals, some believe, would drive home that connection.

"If you know what you are shooting for, you are more apt to hit it than if you have no idea what your target is, which is the way it is currently operating," said Beth McGee, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We know that we need to do a lot, but I don't think that if you went to a local conservation district that they would know they may need to get 10,000 acres of cover crops on the ground."

Yet local decisions, such as whether new developments are on septic systems or hooked to sewers, or whether ordinances are in place to protect local stream health, can have a big impact on the Chesapeake.

"There is basic agreement that a big part of achieving water quality standards has to do with actions being done at the local level," said Katherine Antos, an EPA environmental planner who interviewed state and local officials across the watershed to determine their views about how future nutrient and sediment allocations should be handled.

But there is less agreement about whether local goals are a good idea. Antos found a wide range of opinions; some states favored county-scale goals, others were opposed. In some states, there was even disagreement among agencies about the issue.

While some see local goals as a way to improve accountability, others see them as a large unfunded mandate on local governments. In some places, their value may be limited as not all land use decisions necessarily rest with counties. In Pennsylvania, they are handled by hundreds of individual townships.

One of the biggest concerns is the accuracy of the goals. The figures stem from computer models used by the state-federal Bay Program which estimate the maximum amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that can reach the Chesapeake and still allow it to meet the water quality standards that would allow fish, underwater grasses and other resources to thrive.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model, which estimates the amount of nutrients and sediment washing off various land uses throughout the watershed, is then used to allocate nutrient limits for each major tributary and state.

In the past, those allocations have been spread across large areas, in part because the model did not have the capability to make estimates at smaller scales. But a new version of the model offers more detailed information than was previously available. (See "Latest watershed model offers more accurate view of nutrient flows to Bay," December 2008.)

For the first time, Bay Program officials say they can estimate the amount of nutrients and sediments originating from individual counties, although they acknowledge that the margin of error increases as the scale gets smaller.

That's small consolation to those getting allocations. "I don't think there is a lot of comfort from the local perspective with the watershed model at the scale it works," said Chip Rice, who has been working with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to "ground truth" nutrient estimates in Richmond County.

The computer model has information about how many "best management practices" have been implemented in each county to control runoff pollution. But some practices may exist that were never reported to officials and therefore are not counted in the computer estimate. Nor does the information show whether BMPs have been maintained or-perhaps most importantly-exactly where they are located.

On the broad scale of a 64,000-square-mile watershed, that detail is averaged out. At the local level, it can dramatically alter any estimate of nutrients being washed downstream.

But it's difficult to determine what pollution control measures are actually in place, and where they are, Rice said. Without that information, it's also difficult to know just how many more pollution control actions can be done in a particular county.

That effort is needed, Rice said, because farmers, local government officials and others in a county on Virginia's Northern Neck are likely to be skeptical of numbers generated by a computer model in Annapolis, MD. Otherwise, he said, a nutrient allocation can seem "pretty threatening because they don't necessarily agree with the data."

While local governments may not be explicitly required to meet the goals, some believe such allocations would set unrealistic expectations. Local governments can pass ordinances and have varying abilities to regulate zoning, but they still lack authority to control many pollution sources, or force action on private lands.

Yet cleaning up the Bay requires huge levels of nutrient reductions. The "tributary strategies" written to meet past cleanup goals sometimes called for implementing nutrient controls on 80-90 percent of the land available.

Not surprisingly, many local government officials are reluctant to have such an obligation thrust, like a hot potato, into their hands.

"Don't set us up for failure," said Penny Gross, a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. "Don't give us a goal that is so huge that we choke on it, and then accuse us of not meeting it."

Gross, a former chair of the Bay Program's Local Government Advisory Committee, does support nutrient and sediment goals set in collaboration with local governments, but said those goals should be incremental and first target improvements in local waterways-where results might be seen more quickly-rather than in the Chesapeake Bay far downstream.

"Let's see if we can clean up some of these smaller embayments, smaller areas," she said.

Another concern is that local goals could prevent flexibility. "We're really, really really against it in the headwaters," said Jim Curatolo, watershed coordinator for the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, a group of 16 counties working to improve water quality in the region.

Instead of working together to fund the best overall projects, Curatolo said, counties would compete with each other for money in the state legislature if each had a specific allocation. Those with more political clout would likely get more support-even if their projects may not be as beneficial overall.

"They would get the money, and the other ones wouldn't," Curatolo said, "and the other ones would have to raise property taxes to pay for it."

Further, he said, counties would have little incentive to do more than their share, even if they can achieve nutrient and sediment reductions more effectively than a neighbor.

"All the water flows by the same tree as it goes downstream," Curatolo said, "so what should anybody care about where we do it?"

It may make little difference, as far as Bay water quality is concerned, where nutrient reduction actions take place in New York.

But for areas close to the Bay, it's a different matter. Water quality standards in rivers such as the Choptank or the Severn-as well as a host of small tidal creeks and embayments-will not be met unless actions are taken on the lands that drain directly into those local waters.

In those cases, allocations may need to be made not only to counties, but to the portions of counties that drain into a particular river or creek.

In Maryland, where state officials in February presented a possible local allocation framework at the annual tributary team meeting, officials envision a system in which state and county officials use a mix of model data and more refined information from counties to estimate where nutrients and sediments are originating. Those figures could be used as the basis for making allocations.

"We see the county governments playing a critical role in water quality planning," said Rich Eskin, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Science Services Administration. "Plus, they control the land use. So clearly, the county needs to play a very active, informed role."

Eskin acknowledged that the first efforts to set local nutrient goals may have significant margins of error, but they could be refined over time as better information becomes available.

"We don't need to have these allocations to the third decimal point," he said. "Certainly not in the immediate future. We are so far away from where we need to be that everybody could do a lot of work, and not have to worry that they're doing a little more than they need to do."

Over time, as officials become more comfortable with the information, Eskin said he expects consideration of impacts to Bay water quality to become a part of routine decision making. "This, in a sense, is a culture change," he said. "People think about school capacity. They think about the road capacity. They don't necessarily think about the water quality capacity."

The exact methodology for setting local goals will be hammered out over the next several months. Because different areas have different impacts on water quality, the EPA-which ultimately has to approve the cleanup plans-has indicated the scale of allocations may vary from place to place. Local allocations, perhaps at the county-or subcounty-level may be required in areas near the Bay, with allocations to broader areas farther upstream.

But even in upstream areas, the EPA will likely want to see more specific local goals than before to improve accountability, Batiuk said.

"We are expecting local implementation plans that will describe nutrient control actions at appropriate geographic scales and for specific sources that gives the downstream states and the EPA reasonable assurance that they are going to be able to carry out their programs," he said.

Batiuk added that "it's not going to happen overnight" and initial allocations would not be perfect numbers. "It's the beginning of the process."

Setting more localized goals will require more outreach than ever before with local governments to help them refine allocation figures, and identify what additional resources will be needed to meet cleanup goals. "We can't just come there, plop a set of numbers down, and say, 'go to it guys,'" Batiuk said.

But ultimately, he said, it may help answer a key question. "What is it going to truly take to bring back local waters and the downstream Chesapeake Bay? That is a dialogue we've never had because we've never been in a position to take these lofty Baywide goals and translate them into the backyards of local communities-the real watershed scales that people care about."

Allocations

Allocations are, essentially, the nutrient or sediment load cap for a particular river or location. In 2003, the Bay Program established a Baywide nitrogen allocation of 175 million pounds a year, and a phosphorus allocation of 12.8 million pounds per year. Those figures were sub-allocated to states and rivers.

In May, the Bay Program is expected to establish a new set of allocations based on more recent information and updated computer models.

Total Maximum Daily Loads

One of the factors driving interest in localized nutrient and sediment allocations is the development of a cleanup plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, for the Chesapeake Bay.

A TMDL is essentially a pollution budget that sets the maximum amount of pollution a body can receive, with a margin of error, and still meet its water quality standards.

The federal Clean Water Act requires TMDLs for all water bodies that do not meet water quality standards. Under a court agreement, the EPA must complete a TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay by May 2011, although officials hope to complete the document by the end of 2010.

A TMDL is similar to past Bay cleanup plans in that it establishes limits on nutrient and sediment pollution, which degrade Chesapeake water quality. But it has a number of important differences.

A TMDL divides the pollution budget into a "wasteload allocation" and "load allocations." Wasteload allocations affect facilities with discharge permits, such as wastewater treatment plants, urban stormwater and large animal feeding operations. The wasteload allocation assigned to facilities in a TMDL must be reflected in permits.

The load allocation covers unregulated sources of pollution, such as runoff. Because those sources do not have permits, the EPA's regulations require that TMDLs contain "reasonable assurance" that those allocations will be met.

The EPA's requirements about what constitutes adequate reasonable assurance are vague. As a result, the assurance provided in most TMDLs is vague as well-a factor that contributes to most TMDLs not being fully implemented. Partly as a result, state and federal officials have said they want the Bay TMDL to be a model for providing accountability.

(See "Proof or Consequences: Latest cleanup plans must meet goals," October 2008.)