In a little more than two years, states in the Bay watershed will need to provide evidence that the nutrient and sediment pollution reduction actions they report are resulting in improvements in the real world — not just on paper.
The six states in the Bay watershed, and the District of Columbia, submitted draft plans this summer showing how they would accomplish that.
But an independent panel of outside experts that reviewed the drafts found a lot of work remained to be done.
The independent panel reviewed each state’s draft plans showing how it would verify pollution reduction actions in six sectors — agriculture, forestry, urban stormwater, wastewater, wetland restoration and stream restoration.
Of the states’ 41 submitted drafts, the panel found only five that were “predominantly consistent” with verification guidelines established by the state-federal Bay Program partnership.
Despite the lackluster review, those first state reports marked a huge step forward in a long-term effort to improve the accountability of nutrient and sediment reduction programs, said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA Bay Program Office.
“The partnership literally started with a blank sheet of paper,” Batiuk said. “The fact that we got to this point, without a recipe — without a cookbook — is a huge one. No one knew how to do this, much less across six states.”
For decades, states in the watershed made annual reports to the Bay Program Office about how many nutrient and sediment pollution reduction actions they implemented the previous year, such as the miles of stream forest buffers planted, or acres of wetlands created to control stormwater runoff.
Based on the estimated effectiveness of those best management practices, or BMPs, Bay Program computer models could estimate the amount of progress each state was making toward achieving its nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution reduction goals.
But a 2011 report by the National Academy of Sciences criticized the Bay Program’s approach to tracking BMPs implementation throughout the watershed. In some cases they were undercounted, in others they were likely double-counted. Further, the NAS said it was unclear whether BMPs, after being initially installed, remained in place and functioning. Overall, the report said “the current accounting cannot be viewed as accurate.”
To fix these problems, the Bay Program over the last several years improved the tracking and reporting of BMPs and established the new watershedwide BMP verification framework, approved last September by senior state and federal officials.
The framework, in a nutshell, requires that all six watershed states and the district implement programs to ensure that all nutrient and sediment control actions — from pasture management to wastewater treatment plant upgrades — not only exist, but also remain in place and functioning as designed.
Beginning in 2018, only those efforts that the states and the district can verify will be counted toward meeting their individual nutrient and sediment reduction goals set in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load to restore the Bay’s water quality.
Potentially, large numbers of BMPs that have been on the books for years could be removed if states are unable to verify their existence and functionality.
The process to develop a verification program was hampered, Batiuk said, because it had to be developed from scratch — Bay Program officials could find no similar program that covered so many types of pollution control activities over an area comparable to the Bay’s six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed.
The Bay Program assembled an independent panel of experts from across the nation to advise in the development of the BMP verification framework. That framework, includes hundreds of pages of guidance about what would constitute a satisfactory verification program — how often do BMPs need to be inspected? How does someone ensure a stream forest buffer not only exists, but is functioning?
In July, all seven jurisdictions in the watershed turned in their first draft reports documenting how they would verify nutrient and sediment practices for each of four pollution sectors (agriculture, forestry, urban stormwater and wastewater) and two habitat restoration types (stream and wetland restoration).
That was 41 plans in all. (The District of Columbia didn’t have to submit an agriculture plan.) But the independent panel that reviewed the plans was far from impressed. It deemed 19 of the plans as “inadequate,” while 16 had “notable gaps.”
Four jurisdictions — Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia — had no acceptable plans. Maryland and West Virginia had only one each. But half of Delaware’s plans were considered largely consistent with the Bay Program’s verification protocols.
That doesn’t mean, at least not in all cases, that the states do not have programs capable of verifying that their nutrient reduction efforts are in place and working. In some cases, they simply failed to provide documentation.
For instance, the District of Columbia’s Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant is the largest, and most highly regulated, sewer plant in the region. The panel said it was “well aware” of the strengths of the District’s verification program for Blue Plains, but that it failed to provide any supporting documentation.
Batiuk said that with billions of dollars of public investment in Bay cleanup efforts, it is important that all jurisdictions be able to explain “in plain English” how they are ensuring that promised pollutant load reduction actions are actually taking place.
“It is important to have that transparency to build confidence in the programs that are out there,” Batiuk said.
Often, though, the independent review panel found that states only provided information about how they document that a BMP was implemented — not how they verify on an ongoing basis that the BMP remains in place, and continues functioning.
For some widespread practices, such as nutrient management plans, state plans often lacked critical details about how often farms would be inspected and records examined to ensure plans were being followed.
Another common shortfall related to the use of statistical sampling. It would be impossible to verify every BMP every year, so states can meet verification requirements by sampling a subset of farms or urban runoff control practices each year. But in many cases, the plans failed to establish and clearly explain the scientific basis for how large the sample size should be, or the sampling methodology that would be used.
At the same time, the review panel found good examples in each of the states’ programs that other states should consider duplicating in their programs. New York, for instance, detailed its process to train staff specifically to perform verification duties. Several states — such as Pennsylvania — proposed pilot programs over the next two years to test different approaches for on-site verification.
Still, most plans will require major revisions — and better documentation — before they are submitted to the EPA in mid-November with a final review to be completed by mid-December.
The verification expert panel met with state officials for two days in late August to discuss ways their draft plans could be improved.
Batiuk said it is important for states to begin phasing in programs next year because verification represents a sea change in the way states track and report nutrient reduction efforts. Starting in 2018, unverified BMPs will no longer be counted.
“It is going to be an evolving process,” Batiuk said. “The Bay Program partnership is using 2016 and 2017 as a ramp-up period for the states to take their plans and implement them and learn. So this doesn’t end in the November 2015 time period with the states’ submission of their final plans.”
To review state plans and the BMP Verification Review Panel’s feedback, visit chesapeakebay.net/about/programs/bmp/additional_resources.