Must Chesapeake Bay states achieve the impossible to reach Bay cleanup goals by 2025? That’s unclear. But their work must certainly achieve the unprecedented.A Plain Sect farmer works a field in Lancaster County, PA. Although the focus has been on Pennsylvania, reducing pollution from agriculture in order to meet the 2025 Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals will be a challenge for Maryland and Virginia, too. (Ad Crable)

Most of the latest state cleanup plans, released in August, call for levels of action to reduce pollution from the hardest-to-control sources — agriculture and stormwater — that greatly exceed what states have so far demonstrated they can accomplish.

Much of the attention has focused on Pennsylvania, whose pollution control shortfall is more of a chasm than a gap. But a review of the latest state watershed implementation plans and supporting documentation reveals that other key states — Maryland and Virginia — face a steep climb as well.

Plans from the three states, which combined supply almost 90% of the nitrogen pollution to the Bay, call for reversing the rising trend of runoff from developed lands and accelerating conservation practices on farms  — by far the largest source of nutrients. Both sectors must slash pollution by rates that the states have so far been unable to attain.

Maryland’s plan, for instance, would require a 6.4-fold ramp up its annual rate of nitrogen reductions from farmland between now and 2025. Virginia needs a 14-fold increase, and Pennsylvania must step up its rate by a staggering 67 times.

It’s unclear in the watershed implementation plans, or WIPs, whether any state has the programs or funding to achieve that magnitude of effort now, let alone the profound boost that will be needed in the coming years.

“Funding is the tragic flaw of the WIPs,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represents state legislatures. “And without monetary support, there will not be progress. It is the Achilles heel.”

Nutrients, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, are the major pollutant fouling the Bay’s water. States have been working to curb the amount of nutrients entering the Bay since the mid-1980s. While progress has been made — especially with phosphorus — nitrogen has proven to be more difficult to control.

Since 2010, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the latest Bay cleanup goals, known as the Bay’s Total Maximum Daily Load or “pollution diet,” 85% of the nitrogen reductions have come from upgrading wastewater treatment plants. But there are few plants left that need upgrades.

In the six years from now to the end of 2025, when all cleanup actions are to be in place, state plans call for about 82% of the remaining nitrogen reductions to come from agriculture and 5% from stormwater. But progress in these areas has been difficult.

Unlike wastewater, where reductions can be required through permits, getting nutrient reductions on farms is more difficult, often requiring one-on-one advice from technical support providers, usually from county, state or federal agencies, as well as funding assistance to install any recommended conservation practice.

Reducing runoff from development is problematic because there is more developed land each year — much of it in areas not covered by stormwater permits — and it is hugely expensive to retrofit runoff controls into urban areas built before such measures were required.

Providing assurance?

The cleanup plans submitted by the states in August are supposed to show how states would meet the nutrient reduction goals outlined in the Bay’s pollution diet. The plans also are supposed to offer enough detail about programs and funding to provide “reasonable assurance” that they will succeed.

After the EPA reviewed draft plans this summer, the agency asked states for more detail about how they would support significantly higher implementation rates for runoff control on farms and developed lands. That call was echoed in comments from conservation districts, agricultural trade groups, environmentalists and others.

Little additional detail emerged in final plans issued on Aug. 23, though.

The EPA will be reviewing the plans over the coming months. If the agency concludes that they do not provide “reasonable assurance” of success, it can take a variety of actions, such as increased oversight or redirecting funding, among other actions.

There is no set timetable for the EPA to release its conclusions.

Evan Isaacson of the Center for Progressive Reform, an advocacy group, asserted in a blog post that the latest plans “fail to come close to providing the public with the reasonable assurance that EPA demanded of the states when the Bay TMDL was launched at the beginning of this decade.”

Pennsylvania’s plan took the brunt of the criticism because it missed its nitrogen reduction goal by a wide mark and identified an annual funding shortfall of $324 million. It sends more nutrients to the Bay than any other state, and failure to meet its goal — with a shortfall that is about the same amount as the entire nitrogen reduction sought from Maryland — would mean the Chesapeake would not attain water quality standards by a wide mark.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, saying Maryland had “alarming concerns” about Pennsylvania’s progress and calling on the agency to offer a “robust demonstration” that it will use its oversight authority to spur greater action.

William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said his organization would “seriously consider our legal options” if Pennsylvania does not ramp up its effort.

The challenge in reducing nutrient runoff from farms and developed land has stymied other Bay states as well — but Pennsylvania has more of both than any other state in the Bay watershed.

Pennsylvania achieved only 8% of its nitrogen reductions from agriculture during the last decade, but hopes to get 93% from farmlands between now and 2025.Planting cover crops is one of the management practices used to control nutrient pollution runoff from farms. (Dave Harp)

The numbers for Maryland and Virginia tell similar tales. Virginia achieved only 6% of its nitrogen reductions from farm operations during the past decade. From now to 2025, it is counting on 77% of reductions coming from farms.

Maryland got 18% of its reductions from agriculture over the last decade, but expects 55% to come from farmland by 2025.

The farmland challenge

Stemming the flow of nutrients from farmland has long been elusive. Huge amounts of fertilizer and animal manure, the major sources of nutrients, are placed on crops each year. But many crops, such as corn, use nitrogen inefficiently, and sometimes unused portions of the applications run off the fields.

Nitrogen also comes from crops such as soybeans that don’t need fertilizer but directly “fix” nitrogen out of the atmosphere and put it into the soil. Nutrients also reach waterways directly from the manure of cattle and other livestock that leave waste in or near a stream. Altogether, agriculture accounts for about half the nitrogen reaching the Bay.

Over the years, state and federal agencies have promoted a wide range of “best management practices” to help reduce runoff, from building covered manure storage facilities and better managing fertilizer and manure applications to fencing livestock out of streams.

Progress has been made, but adopting some of the most effective runoff control techniques, such as buffers or streambank fences, takes land out of production — which many farmers resist, especially when struggling to make a profit.

Federal and state programs historically have helped farmers pay for runoff control practices, but levels have fluctuated over the years.

The federal government has historically been the largest source of conservation money, but its support decreased after the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, a 2008 Farm Bill program that prioritized spending on the Bay watershed, expired several years ago.

As a result, by 2016 and 2017, the number of federally funded farm conservation practices implemented annually in the Bay watershed has declined by half, according to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey, which tracked implementation of Farm Bill programs.

“The Chesapeake Watershed Initiative proved that if you had the money to support the farmers, the farmers would engage,” said Swanson, of the Bay Commission, which has been heavily involved in Farm Bill issues. “So as long as you can figure out the funding streams, conservation can be had in the Bay watershed.”

A new five-year Farm Bill approved by Congress this year will likely result in some increased funding, but not to levels seen during the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, she said.

State programs generally provide less money and are more variable from year to year, although Maryland does have dedicated annual funding. Across the watershed, conservation districts report that demand for help from farmers typically exceeds funding.

Even if funding is available, it usually requires a match from a farmer. That’s become more difficult, conservation districts and environmental groups report, as the farm economy has been hurt by bad weather, federal trade policies and other factors in recent years.

“If the farm economy is not healthy, our ability to provide assistance in implementing the WIP goals will likely become a greater challenge,” said the Montgomery Soil Conservation District in comments on the Maryland plan.

State and federal funding also has lagged behind the need for technical staff to help farmers design and implement practices. That work is considered critical.

“Farmers may have all the cost-share funds they need to implement a best management practice, but without the knowledgeable people to assist, the likelihood of increased implementation is low,” the Delmarva Poultry Industry said in comments on state WIPs. That view is echoed by many others.

A 2017 report by the Bay Commission called the shortage in technical support staff a “red flag” for the Bay cleanup effort.

Because of that shortfall, “farmers may not receive the assistance they need to reach the pollution reduction goals for which the agricultural sector is responsible under the Bay cleanup.” And it cautioned the gap “will grow still larger as the region works to meet its 2025 cleanup goals for the Bay.”

Plans lack detail

None of the plans provides clarity on how states would increase funding for either cost-share or technical support on the orders-of-magnitude needed to meet Bay restoration goals.

Virginia outlined more than 50 actions that could help meet the goals, including increased and more stable state funding, as well as legislation requiring farmers to write and implement nutrient management plans that guide fertilizer application and to exclude livestock from streams.

Whether the legislature would back such efforts is unclear, though lawmakers have backed modest funding increases in recent years. The plan does not say exactly how much money is needed.

“The challenges will be significant,” said Peggy Sanner, CBF’s Virginia assistant director and senior attorney. “It is achievable. A lot will depend on our legislators and our regulators enforcing it. But there is a lot of support for the program.”

Maryland may be in the best shape, mainly because it has the largest dedicated funding source which provides tens of millions of dollars annually for its agricultural programs. But those programs still have not delivered the rate of nitrogen reductions required by its watershed implementation plan.

“The reality is, the [watershed implementation plan] for agriculture cannot be achieved with current staffing and resources” at the county level, the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts said in its comments on the state plan.

While Maryland’s plan acknowledges that meeting goals will require a “substantial increase in effort,” it also insists that it has “sufficient resources” in place to meet the goals and no new statewide fees or taxes are required.

Erik Fisher, CBF’s Maryland assistant director, said he would like to see more details from the state. But, he said, it is also possible that the state has implemented more on-the-ground actions than have been tracked, meaning its gap for coming years is smaller than data suggest.

It is also possible, he said, that the state has adequate money to meet its agricultural goals but might need to spend it differently. Much of Maryland’s funding is earmarked to subsidize the planting of nutrient-absorbing cover crops each fall.

While such crops can reduce runoff, they have to be replanted — and subsidized — each year. In effect, the money “buys” the same nutrient reduction every year, or the nutrient reduction benefit ends.

Fisher said he would like to see more money steered toward practices such as streamside forest buffers or water-filtering wetlands which, once established, can clean water for decades.

“We really believe it is a question of how this money is getting spent,” he said. “Over the long-term for this plan to succeed, we think a greater share of these funds needs to go these more permanent practices.”

Although Pennsylvania has more agricultural land and more farms — and more related runoff — than any other state in the Bay watershed, it has long lacked any reliable cost-share programs to help farmers install conservation practices. The farms tend to be small, so the outreach challenge in the state is huge.

Its plan outlines a variety of ways to help close a projected $324 million annual funding gap. Several of the options would require support from the General Assembly, which has been reluctant to provide much aid in the past.

“Agriculture is an integral part of the commonwealth’s culture and economy,” said Harry Campbell, CBF’s Pennsylvania executive director, who noted that many actions in the plan would help both farmers and local waterways.

Still, he said, “Pennsylvania’s elected leaders have failed to adequately invest in helping implement those practices on the more than 33,000 family farms in the watershed.”

The development dilemma

Stemming the flow of nutrients from developed land is equally problematic throughout the region. Except in the District of Columbia, which has spent hundreds of millions to address it, that source of runoff has been gradually increasing.

In its plan, Maryland actually slashed actions it expects from its largest counties in half for the next several years. Virginia’s stormwater permits would not achieve the state’s goals until after 2025. Both states are expecting overperformance from wastewater treatment plants to help make up for shortfalls in the stormwater sector through 2025.

But the plans acknowledge that this strategy will only work for a while. The surplus reductions from wastewater plans will diminish as the region’s population continues to grow and treatment facilities have to handle more sewage.

Another problem, and a potentially bigger one, is controlling runoff from developed lands outside of towns and cities whose runoff is covered by stormwater permits.

Those are often more rural areas, where runoff is increasing as development sprawls over the countryside. Such places account for a substantial amount of the runoff from developed lands in both Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Joe Wood, CBF’s Virginia staff scientist, said he was hopeful that areas with stormwater permits would ultimately reach their goals, and that some might do so before 2025. But in areas without those permits, “I can’t say with confidence we will get there.”

The WIPs have helped to highlight the importance of managing runoff from unregulated areas, which has generally been overlooked in the past. “Now, at least, there is discussion about it,” Wood said.

Virginia and Maryland still hope that wastewater — the workhorse of the cleanup effort so far — may continue to overperform in coming years and help meet watershed implementation plan goals if other sectors fall short.

Reductions likely wouldn’t be as great as in the past. But, Wood noted, “every little bit helps.”

The question is, with such an upstream struggle ahead, whether little bits will be enough.