States will soon need to ensure that pollution-control practices exist in reality — not just in theory — if they are to be counted toward meeting Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.
In December, senior state and federal officials agreed to a set of "verification principles" that will guide the development of a consistent system for tracking the implementation and maintenance of pollution-control practices throughout the 64,000-square-mile Bay watershed.
The action by the Bay Program's Principals Staff Committee, which includes state department heads and senior federal agency officials, was aimed at addressing years of criticism that existing programs were inadequate to ensure that various pollution-control practices were installed, working as designed and not double-counted.
Under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or "pollution diet," states have to implement enough pollution-control practices by 2025 to attain Bay water quality goals— and 60 percent of them are to be in place by 2017.
Whether those would actually accomplish the job of improving Bay water quality by reducing nutrient and sediment pollution hinges on whether things like manure storage facilities or riparian forest buffers or stormwater controls continue to function as designed over the years.
"This is one of the issues that is foundational," said Nick DiPasquale, director of the EPA Bay Program Office at the meeting, adding that the public would lose confidence if cleanup partners cannot accurately count and track their actions.
Several environmental groups expressed that concern last year when they tried to assess progress toward meeting goals. While state efforts seemed to be on track, they expressed concern about the quality of state implementation data, which was "far from where it needs to be," said Beth McGee, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Part of it, for us, is just getting confidence in the numbers."
Each year, states report what actions they have taken to clean up the Bay, from the number of wastewater treatment plants that were upgraded, to the number of "best management practices," or BMPs, such as cover crops and forest buffers, that were implemented on farms.
But the methods to account for and track those actions over time vary widely by state. Tracking is important because, for instance, a riparian forest buffer might be counted toward cleanup goals when it is planted, but over time it could be eaten by deer, overwhelmed by invasive plants, or washed away by floods. It would continue to count toward nutrient reduction goals unless someone checked its status. Likewise, practices like cover crops may not deliver the anticipated nutrient reductions if they are planted too late, or if farmers apply manure to them.
The problem is not limited to agriculture. A survey by the Community & Environmental Defense Services for the Severn River association in 2010 found that more than 30 percent of the stormwater best management practices in Maryland's Severn River watershed were not functioning properly.
Also of concern is the potential for double-counting, which can happen when several agencies partially fund an activity, and each claims credit.
A panel of scientists. convened at the Bay Program's request by the National Research Council to review the issue, said in a report two years ago that the Bay Program's system for tracking BMPs "cannot be viewed as accurate."
The principles adopted in December will in the coming months guide the establishment of verification protocols to help local, state and federal programs ensure that practices "are properly designed, installed and maintained over time." Only those practices that are verified will be counted toward meeting Bay cleanup goals, the principles said.
The verification protocols are being written for each major pollution sector — agriculture, stormwater, forestry and wastewater — and will spell out verification procedures, such as how often certain types of practices need to be inspected.
An independent team of experts has also been assembled to evaluate whether state programs are adequate to carry out those verification procedures, and to recommend improvements if needed. While the principles adopted acknowledge that states may have different verification programs and methodologies, the ultimate goal is to ensure there is a similar level of confidence that a reported BMP exists, and is maintained, regardless of where in the watershed it was implemented.
Still, a number of officials worry that verification will increase agency workloads and reduce the resources available to put new pollution controls in place.
"Some of this is a bit disturbing in terms of allocation of resources," said David Johnson, director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, at the meeting. "I'm not convinced, at this stage, that this type of thing is the bigger benefit."
Johnson said some municipalities have indicated they may not take credit for practices such as rain barrels and rain gardens because of the added burden of needing to verify numerous small practices over the years. "Those who will have to administer this say they don't have the resources to verify them," he said.
Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA Bay Program Office and chair of the committee overseeing the verification development process, acknowledged that the effort would entail "a tremendous amount of work."
But, he said, verification offers the opportunities for agencies to work more closely with farmers and municipalities to identify other nutrient-control practices that could be funded through cost-share programs.
In addition, verification will allow for previously unreported best management practices to be counted toward pollution-reduction goals. Farmers and states have long contended that many producers implement pollution-control programs on their own, and these are not reflected in conservation district or government agency records and therefore not counted toward cleanup goals. The protocols under development will establish what type of verification is needed to count those actions.
One of the toughest issues, Batiuk said, is determining how much certainty is needed in the verification process. "To ensure those practices are in place and functioning to the nth degree of certainty would require a tremendous amount of human resources," he said. "We recognize we can't do that."
As a result, although much of the framework for the improved verification system will be in place next year, Batiuk said the actual process will likely evolve over time. The bottom line, he said, is that accountability needs to be improved to ensure that actions claimed to be taking place on the land result in actual water quality improvements. "This is clearly an issue that has gotten the attention of the partnership," he said.