The EPA and its Bay Program partners need to place more emphasis on controlling nutrient runoff from urban and suburban areas if they are to keep pace with the impact of new development, according to a federal report.
In river-specific cleanup plans, known as tributary strategies, states have generally placed more emphasis on controlling pollution from wastewater treatment plants and agriculture-which are considered more cost-effective-than on controlling runoff from streets, roofs, lawns and other developed areas.
But the EPA's Office of Inspector General warned in a new report that states would still fall short of their tributary strategy goals for developed land because pollution from new development is increasing at a faster rate than runoff is being reduced from existing developed areas.
"If communities do not sufficiently address runoff from new development, loads from developed lands will continue to increase rather than diminish," the report stated.
The Bay Program estimates that urban runoff accounts for about 12 percent of the nitrogen, 17 percent of the phosphorus and 10 percent of the sediment reaching the Bay.
If septic systems and "mixed open" lands-a broad category that includes everything from golf courses to meadows-are also included, runoff from developed and developing lands grows to 24 percent of the nitrogen, 30 percent of the phosphorus and 18 percent of the sediment reaching the Bay, the report added.
While pollution from wastewater treatment plants and agriculture is decreasing, the amount of pollution from developed lands will gradually increase as more people move into the watershed and more land is developed unless faster progress is made.
Figures cited in the report indicate that all of the new development in the watershed from 2000 to 2005 has increased nitrogen runoff by 1 million pounds a year, and phosphorus by 200,000 pounds.
Yet controlling stormwater and other runoff can be expensive. Some estimates suggest controlling urban and suburban runoff could account for two-thirds of the estimated $28 billion needed to implement tributary strategies. Retrofitting stormwater controls on older areas is especially expensive.
The report acknowledged that addressing stormwater runoff is costly, but said a cost-effective start would be to focus on runoff from new development.
The report said the EPA needed to show "greater leadership" in identifying development and runoff control practices that would result in a no-net-increase in nutrient runoff from new development, and helping communities implement those practices.
It said the Bay Program needed more up-to-date information about development trends, and should do more to predict where future development will take place.
The report also said the EPA and its Bay Program partners should set nutrient and sediment limits for local communities. While such allocations have been made for major river basins-and are the basis for tributary strategies-no allocations have been made for counties or other local government units.
Because no limits are set for local communities, the report said municipalities do not have "sufficient understanding or inclination" to work toward overall nutrient goals, even though development and stormwater decisions are made at the local level.
"Successful restoration to achieve Bay water quality goals requires that these community-level goals be established and communicated to all partners, including the local communities," the report said. "Local partners need to accept these goals and their own roles and responsibilities for achieving them."
Jeff Lape, director of the EPA's Bay Program Office, acknowledged that development in the watershed-where the population is expected to grow from more than 16 million today to more than 19 million by 2030-is a huge challenge.
"The one big problem that is perplexing us is development-170,000 new residents a year," Lape said.
But he said the EPA and the states are working to create a set of principles that describes what "nutrient neutral" or "no impact" development looks like. Once created, the Bay Program will work to improve outreach to local communities to promote their adoption as a "new paradigm for development," he said.
"I see this as a pretty important effort of equal value to what we are doing with point sources and agriculture," Lape said. "We are not talking about stopping development. What we are talking about is helping people frame those new paradigms."
Lape added that efforts are needed to address existing development and redevelopment as well as new development. "I don't think we can ignore any one of those three," he said.
Lape said the EPA would need to work with state and local governments on exploring how to make nutrient and sediment allocations to local communities. It's unclear how such allocations could be equitably made. "We need to better understand the basis, process and implications of doing community level allocations," he said.
He said the Bay Program is also working to improve its ability to project future growth. It is in the process of predicting likely land use changes in the watershed through 2030. "I'm confident we have a good plan to do that," Lape said. "We're a good way there, and more data is coming in."
The report also said the EPA could more effectively use regulatory tools to help control nutrient runoff, such as setting nutrient limits in stormwater discharge permits issued for municipalities under the MS4 Program. It acknowledged, though, that such limits cannot be established for areas not subject to MS4 permits.
EPA officials say they are improving the monitoring and enforceability of stormwater permits as they come up for renewal every five years. The agency is finalizing new fact sheets that will guide permit writers-and communities with permits-about funding options for improving stormwater control, incorporating better site design principles in permits, integrating permits with local water quality goals, and more effectively measuring progress.
Historically, stormwater permits have focused on requiring various management practices aimed at improving local water quality, said Jon Capacasa, director of the water protection division for EPA Region III.
Increasingly, though, the permits are setting more measurable components, including specific pollution reduction goals that are needed to clean up impaired waterways along with details about how those goals will be achieved and monitored.
"We are seeking performance benchmarks or measurable outcomes," Capacasa said.