After a yearlong review, the Bay Program has concluded that its decade-old goal of reducing the amount of nutrients entering the Chesapeake 40 percent by the year 2000 won't happen unless control efforts are accelerated.

Unfortunately, that's not the whole story.

A report summarizing the results of the re-evaluation warns that - at least in some areas - the original 40 percent nutrient reduction goal probably won't be enough to ensure a healthy Bay.

After a year that saw outbreaks of the fish-killing microbe, pfiesteria, in several Bay tributaries, the conclusion that further nutrient reductions are needed was acknowledged by members of the Executive Council when they conducted their annual meeting on Oct. 30.

"We obviously need to do more," said Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. "We have seen the warnings in our creeks and rivers that something is not right."

At the meeting, the Council - which includes the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the administrator of the EPA and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Com-mission, which represents the legislatures of the three states - signed a directive calling for accelerated nutrient reduction efforts in the next three years to meet the original 40 percent goal.

But the directive also said the Bay Program needs to take a new river-by-river look at the nutrient reduction goals and to be prepared to "set tougher and more area-specific goals as new information becomes available."

"Is 40 percent enough?" EPA Administrator Carol Browner asked at the meeting. "Will it help us deal with problems like pfiesteria? Will it restore local watersheds and streams? Do we need to go further? If so, how much further? That is what we hope to determine under today's directive."

Reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Bay 40 percent by the turn of the century was the cornerstone of the council's 1987 Bay Agreement.

In 1992, the 40 percent reduction was divided into tributary-specific nutrient reduction goals, measured in pounds, for both nitrogen and phosphorus. Tributary strategies were to be written for major rivers to decide how those reductions would be achieved.

But in some areas, it appears that even full achievement of those goals would fall short of the 1987 Bay Agreement's overall objective, "the restoration and protection of the living resources, their habitats and ecological relationships."

Excess nutrients spur algae blooms that block sunlight to important underwater grasses which provide food and habitat to waterfowl, crabs, juvenile fish and other species. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that depletes the water of oxygen required by a variety of aquatic life.

This year, excess nutrients were blamed for contributing to outbreaks of pfiesteria that were repsonsible for the deaths of about 20,000 fish in rivers on Maryland's Eastern Shore, as well as sickening more than a score of people. The microbe was blamed for causing lesions on fish in other Bay tributaries.

While nutrient reduction efforts have contributed to habitat improvements such as expanded grass beds in some areas, there has been no Baywide improvement, according to a report summarizing the nutrient re-evaluation results.

"The lack of an overall living resource response and the challenges we face in trying to deal with pfiesteria-like toxic dinoflagellates tells us that we need to do more if we want to achieve our living resource and habitat restoration goals, and, ultimately, a healthier and more productive Bay system," the report said. Among the report's other conclusions:

  • The rivers feeding the Bay are cleaner today than would be the case if no action had been taken.
  • Meeting the nutrient reduction goals set for the year 2000 is unlikely for nitrogen without major additional efforts.
  • Meeting the nutrient reduction goals set for the year 2000 for phosphorus is likely.
  • When tributary strategies are fully implemented - something that won't happen until after the turn of the century - they will meet the nutrient reduction goals set in 1992.
  • Anticipated growth in the watershed will make further nutrient reductions difficult. In fact, growth may challenge the ability to maintain reductions already achieved.

But the most significant conclusion may be the confirmation of what many scientists and officials have suspected for years: Some rivers feeding the Bay are so overloaded with nutrients that the original nutrient reduction goal will not make enough of a dent in their water quality problems to make a resource recovery likely.

"Although some river systems are responding, we are not seeing the Baywide response we're looking for," the report said.

The main clues of responses are improved oxygen levels in the water, expanded grass beds and healthier communities of bottom-dwelling benthic organisms. While some of those indicators have improved in areas where there have been sizable nutrient reductions, there has been no systemic improvement, the report said.

Some delays in water quality and living resource improvements are to be expected, the report noted. Much of the nitrogen that enters the Bay and its tributaries arrives through groundwater, and it may take a decade or more for it to work its way through the ground and into surface waters.

As a result, the full benefit of some agricultural practices aimed at controlling nitrogen runoff would not be realized until all "old" nutrients are flushed out of the groundwater. That "lag time" then delays water quality improvements.

On the other hand, some rivers such as the Patuxent, have had large nutrient reductions because of wastewater treatment plant upgrades - which have no "lag time" for water quality changes - yet have had limited improvements in terms of oxygen levels in the water and expanded grass beds.

In such areas, officials now say the original nutrient reduction goals may need to be adjusted to levels that would ensure a resource recovery.

The reason:

The original nutrient reduction goal was divided equally, in terms of percent reduction, among all major rivers. But the fact is, some rivers have more excess nutrients than others. And differences in temperature, salinities, the ratio of phosphorus to nitrogen and other factors play an important role in determining the full impact that nutrients have on water quality in different areas. "All systems are not created equal," said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

The model for how further nutrient reduction targets would be set may take place in Virginia next year. Because Virginia tributaries south of the Potomac are not thought to have as much impact on Chesapeake water quality as other rivers, final tributary strategies were never set for them, although they were given interim nutrient reduction goals in 1992.

Now, using sophisticated new computer models, the Bay Program will work with Virginia officials in 1998 to determine how various nitrogen and phosphorus reductions would affect resources and habitat within individual rivers.

New nutrient reduction goals based on specific resource objectives could then be set.

Once completed in Virginia, the plan is to revisit nutrient reduction goals in other rivers.

During the next year, the Executive Council directed the Bay Program to develop a procedure, which includes public participation, to determine whether further nutrient reductions should be targeted at areas with continued high nutrient loads, or areas where excess nutrients may hinder habitat recovery or pose human health concerns.

Any adjustments to the reduction goals are to be made by 2000, with tributary strategies written to reach the new targets to be completed by the 2001 Executive Council meeting, according to the directive.

"This commitment is extraordinarily significant because the council will now require the establishment of maximum nutrient loads that the Bay can accept and still produce healthy and abundant living resources," said Virginia Del. W. Tayloe Murphy, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

"It ought to be well-received in fishing villages throughout the region."

"This is a good move - it is the right move. In the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, we said that we would 'reduce and control ... pollution to attain the water quality condition necessary to support the living resources of the Bay.' The nutrient directive will move us closer to that laudable objective."

But even as the re-evaluation report suggested that additional nutrient reductions may be needed, it warned that "capping" nutrient inputs at the reduced levels - another Bay Program goal - will be difficult because of growth in the watershed.

While phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment plants have been declining, they will begin increasing shortly after the turn of the century unless actions beyond those foreseen in the tributary strategies are undertaken, according to the report. Other areas of concern cited by the report include:

  • By 2010, the population in the watershed is expected to increase 12 percent, to more than 16 million, from 1995.
  • The number of vehicle miles traveled is projected to increase by 39 percent, offsetting much - if not all - the benefits of recent actions to reduce vehicle emissions, which are a major contributor of nitrogen oxides.
  • The number of poultry and livestock operations are expected to increase in agricultural areas.
  • The number of septic systems are expected to grow in suburban areas.

"Maintaining the cap will be exacerbated by the population increases projected for the watershed," Murphy said. "More people will bring about changes in the landscape.

"These changes are subtle when viewed in isolation, but when viewed across the watershed, they are like a landslide that begins with a few pebbles rolling down a hillside.

"Without careful planning, this landslide can only mean that the Bay will become the dumping ground for more and more nutrients."