Pennsylvania officials say they are committed to meeting their share of Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, but their final draft plan falls far short of outlining how they will do it.Reducing pollution that enters the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River watershed is critical to meeting Bay cleanup goals. (Lara Lutz)

The plan, which was endorsed Aug. 16 by the state’s Watershed Implementation Plan Steering Committee, would meet the goals for reducing phosphorus pollution by the 2025 cleanup deadline. But it would fail to meet the goal for nitrogen reduction by more than 9 million pounds a year — more than the entire remaining reduction sought for Maryland. 

The plan also outlines a $324 million-a-year funding shortfall, which was significantly larger than the estimate in the draft released earlier this year.

Because Pennsylvania is the largest single contributor of water-fouling nutrients to the Bay, its failure to meet its goal by such a wide margin would mean the region as a whole would miss its clean Bay targets.

Pennsylvania Environment Secretary Pat McDonnell told the committee, which includes state officials and stakeholder group representatives, that the state remains committed to achieving its goals by 2025 but would rely on adaptive management — identifying and implementing additional nutrient control practices beyond those specified in the plan — to do so.

All states are to complete by Aug. 23 final watershed implementation plans, or WIPs, outlining actions needed to achieve Bay pollution reduction goals by 2025.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established nutrient reduction goals for each jurisdiction in the watershed in 2010, when it established the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, often called the Bay’s “pollution diet.” The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus are responsible for algae blooms that cloud the Bay’s water and fuel its oxygen-starved “dead zone.”

States submitted draft WIPs in April. All but those submitted by Pennsylvania and New York met their goals, though in its review, the EPA concluded that nearly all the draft plans lacked adequate detail showing how they would be implemented and funded.

If the EPA concludes the final plans do not provide confidence that states will reach their goals, it can take a variety of actions. Among the options are increasing oversight, extending regulatory authority over more entities, and requiring more pollution reductions from dischargers with permits, such as wastewater treatment plants.

But Pennsylvania’s problem is by far the greatest. Its efforts have not been at the needed pace for years. Its remaining nitrogen reductions are more than twice those needed by all other states in the watershed combined.

Because it is so far behind — more than halfway to the 2025 deadline it has achieved only about 13% of its nitrogen reductions — the EPA has ramped up oversight of its efforts. Last year it issued a special “expectations” letter saying, among other things, that it expected the state to deliver a WIP that fully met its cleanup goals.

There is no time frame for the EPA to make a decision about the adequacy of state plans. Some officials from Maryland and Virginia, along with some environmental groups, have been pressing the agency to act against Pennsylvania, and some have even called for taking legal action.

The state’s final WIP closes the gap from its draft a bit by identifying a number of previously uncounted nutrient reduction actions, such as water quality improvements from wetland mitigation, abandoned mine reclamation and other activities. It also plans to expand or launch several other initiatives.

Altogether, adding those actions to those outlined in the state’s earlier draft would leave the state 9.32 million pounds a year short of its nitrogen goal. In its April draft, it was 11.6 million pounds a year short. The revised plan would, however, exceed the state’s phosphorus reduction goal.

Under the TMDL, the state needs to reduce the amount of nitrogen it sends to the Bay from 112.71 million pounds a year in 2009 to 73.18 million pounds in 2025. Through 2018, it had taken enough actions to reduce nitrogen runoff to 107.36 million pound a year, according to computer model estimates from the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program.

“We believe the Phase III WIP is realistic and implementable with multiple approaches to achieve the planning targets by 2025,” Veronica Kasi, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bay Program Manager, said in her presentation to the committee.

“We do believe we will meet the 2025 target. It will be adaptively managed, and with that flexibility we can account and we can modify and we can adjust and therefore we will meet those planning targets,” Kasi said.

Still, the plan identifies a substantial shortfall in needed funding. Implementing the plan to meet 73% of the nitrogen goal would require an additional $324.2 million a year between now and 2025, an increase from the $257 million a year gap identified in the draft plan.

The Bay efforts got little additional support in the budget approved by the state General Assembly and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf earlier in the summer.

The Pennsylvania Environment Digest, produced by former state environmental protection secretary David Hess, said the budget included $6 million in additional money for farm conservation practices, but cut $16 million from environmental stewardship funding that could have helped local restoration efforts.

Pennsylvania has always faced a more difficult challenge in reducing nutrient pollution than other states in the watershed.

Maryland and Virginia have made recent progress mainly by upgrading wastewater treatment plants, but only about a tenth of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen comes from that sector.

Most of its nutrients come from agriculture and stormwater runoff — sectors that all Bay states struggle to control. It has more farms — 33,000 — than other states in the region, and most are small, making both oversight and outreach a struggle.

Likewise, much of the stormwater pollution comes from small rural communities. Three-fourths of Pennsylvania’s developed lands are outside areas covered by state and federal stormwater permits, meaning there is little effective regulatory control.