The majority of the Bay cleanup can be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of fully implementing the tributary strategies completed by the states this year, according to a new report.

By widely using the six most economical nutrient control techniques, 78 percent of the region’s nitrogen reduction goal, 75 percent of its phosphorus goal and all of its sediment goal can be accomplished for $623 million a year, according to the report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

That is about 20 percent of the current $4.8 billion-a-year estimate for implementing the river-specific nutrient and sediment control plans, known as tributary strategies, which were written by the states.

The report acknowledges that as cheap options are exhausted, the region will need to turn to more expensive measures, such as installing stormwater controls in older urban areas. But before resorting to more costly measures, the commission suggested the that states direct public funds toward actions that provide the “biggest bang for the buck.”

“As a fiscal conservative, I believe we have an enormous financial challenge associated with the Bay restoration which makes it imperative that we target our investments wisely,” said Maryland Sen. Lowell Stolzfus, chairman of the commission which represents the legislatures of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

To reach its conclusions, the commission’s report evaluated 34 nutrient reduction practices, ranging from air pollution controls to land preservation to new farming techniques. The analysis examined both the cost-effectiveness and nutrient reduction potential of each technique — an inexpensive control that could not remove large amounts of nutrients would not be included.

Some, such as air pollution, were dropped because there were too many uncertainties about costs and benefits. Others, such as urban stormwater controls, were costly and removed relatively few nutrients.

The six-item menu that emerged included wastewater treatment plant upgrades, along with five agricultural practices: nutrient management; enhanced nutrient management; animal diet and feed modifications; conservation tillage; and cover crops.

The six practices can not fully achieve the Bay’s nutrient goals, even if widely applied, so other more costly efforts will be needed to bridge the remaining gap. But the report holds out the possibility that more cost-effective reductions may be on the horizon to help keep future costs down.

“New technology is going to be our friend,” predicted Bill Matuszeski, a consultant who worked on the report and former director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. For instance, the report assumes phosphorus reductions through diet changes only for poultry. But research suggests that significant nutrient reductions could be achieved through diet changes for other farm animals as well.

Other practices, such as precision agriculture, which uses computer and satellite technology to plant and fertilize crops with greater accuracy and less waste, holds potential for greater nutrient reductions, but the technology is still restricted to pilot programs.

The picture painted by the report contrasts sharply with other recent cost estimates.

According to Bay Program figures, fully implementing tributary strategies written by the states earlier this year would cost about $28 billion in upfront capital costs, plus another $2.7 billion in costs that would recur each year, such as the operation and maintenance of wastewater treatment plants and stormwater controls, as well as annual payments to farmers for conservation efforts. Taken together (assuming the capital costs were spread over the life of the project) the capital and annual costs would require about $4.8 billion a year.

Those estimates have drawn skepticism because states included many high-cost practices, such as retrofitting stormwater controls on old development sites and replacing existing septic systems, which deliver relatively small nutrient reductions. Some strategies included actions covered by regulations and—in some cases—included court-ordered water quality actions that had minimal benefits to the Bay.

In fact, the Bay Program analysis of the tributary strategies showed that about 80 percent of the nutrient reductions, those from agriculture and wastewater discharges, could be achieved for about 20 percent of the total cost—a figure in line with the commission’s estimate.

A Blue Ribbon Financing Authority created by the Bay Program also expressed doubt about the estimates. It recommended the creation of a $15 billion Bay cleanup fund that would prioritize the most cost-effective actions.

“I think the worst message to give people is that it is going to cost a whole lot of money, and nobody has it so let’s forget about it,” Matuszeski said. “What this report says is this is doable, this is realistic, this is affordable, let’s get going on it.”

The commission suggested that states use the report to examine whether their programs take full advantage of the lowest-cost practices. For instance, cover crops are effective, but only Maryland has a program to pay for them, and even it does not have the funds to finance the amount of cover crops called for in its tributary strategies.

The commission also said states should use the report in setting implementation priorities. The tributary strategies do not prioritize which nutrient control efforts will be implemented first—those details are expected to be spelled out in implementation plans to be completed by the end of the year.

“You can’t do everything in the tributary strategies at once,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the commission. “I would like to think that as the states develop their implementation plans and come up with some hierarchy for action, that they would include this report as part of their guidance.”

The actual expenses may even be less than estimated in the report, Swanson said. Because some of the recommended practices are not widely used, there is uncertainty about their exact costs. When in doubt, the commission used higher estimates, she said. “Some of our costs, we believe, are inflated, but we always wanted to err on the cautious side.”

Further, some costs may decrease as certain practices become more widely used. For instance, incentives needed to encourage farmers to plant nutrient-absorbing cover crops or adopt conservation tillage may decrease over time as they get used to the changes and realize benefits from the practices, such as improved soil quality.

The report acknowledges that there are some caveats to its assumptions. For instance, differences in soil, climate, topography, land use and other factors may affect whether a particular practice is practical in certain areas.

Also, some practices, such as enhanced nutrient management or diet and feed formulation, represent emerging technologies that need further research and program development, as well as financial and political support, if they are to reach their full potential, the report said.

Most significantly, the report assumes that some way would be found to get rid of excess manure that would accumulate if its recommended practices were widely implemented. Several practices, including nutrient management, enhanced nutrient management and conservation tillage reduce the amount of manure that would be applied to fields.

Manure transport is one of the most expensive nutrient control actions; it can cost $10 per ton to move manure distances of less than 25 miles. Matuszeski expressed confidence that other uses will ultimately be found for that waste, whether it is reprocessed as fertilizer, or used to generate energy. “I don’t think that is an insurmountable problem,” he said.

In addition, the report said states may want to undertake other nutrient control practices to accomplish other goals. Some things, such as streamside forest buffers, did not make the commission’s list because they do not result in quick nutrient reductions that contribute to the 2010 goal. Forest buffers take years to become fully effective as newly planted trees must develop extensive root systems to intercept nutrients.

Swanson said states will likely want to plant forest buffers—a major priority of the Bay Program—both for the added nutrient reduction benefits and because of their benefits for stream habitats. “We are not saying abandon riparian forests,” she said. “We are not saying abandon wetland restoration. But we are saying that these other practices, if you want to reach your goal, will deliver huge reductions if you implement them in a big way.”

Swanson said the report can also be used to help identify potential federal funding sources for the Bay cleanup effort. For example, if additional Farm Bill funds were available to the region, they would help cover more of the costs of agricultural practices.

Copies of the report will be available in December. For a copy, contact the commission at paulahose@covad.net. It will also be on the commission’s web site, www.chesbay.state.va.us