Recently completed plans that will guide nutrient reduction efforts in rivers from the Potomac north provide the most detailed picture yet of what must be done to reach the Bay Program’s 40 percent nutrient reduction goal.

A year-and-a-half in the making, these draft “tributary strategies” outline changes needed during the next six years to meet the goal. By the year 2000, the plans envision that:

  • 50 waste water treatment plants in Maryland will have been upgraded to control nitrogen and phosphorus discharges, and most of the state’s farmers will be implementing nutrient management plans and planting cover crops to control runoff.
  • Nearly half of Pennsylvania 5.5 million acres of farmland in the basin will have nutrient control efforts in place and hundreds of miles of streams will have been fenced to keep livestock out.
  • The region’s largest waste water treatment plant, located in the District of Columbia, will have undergone a massive upgrade which, singlehandedly, will have achieved almost one-quarter of the nitrogen reduction sought for the entire Potomac River.

Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia completed drafts of their strategies after a series of public meetings last year. After additional public meetings this spring, they will prepare revised strategies for the Executive Council to approve this fall. Virginia has not yet released a draft of any of its strategies.

The strategies indicate that the job will not be easy: Pennsylvania’s strategy falls short of its goal and officials are asking people in upcoming public meetings to suggest ways to make up the shortfall. Nor will the job will be cheap — altogether, the final cleanup tab will run hundreds of millions of dollars. Maryland’s strategy — which meets the 40 percent goal — appears to be most costly, though no final cost has been determined. Nonetheless, the strategies all show the reductions being sought are technologically feasible.

The Executive Council — made up of the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the EPA administrator, the mayor of the District of Columbia, and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission — directed in 1992 that river-specific strategies be developed to achieve the 40 percent reduction goal set in the 1987 Bay Agreement. Based on computer models, specific nutrient reduction targets were set for each river. The intent behind the river strategies was to improve not only the Bay’s water quality, but also that of its major tributaries, where much of the important habitat for aquatic species is located.

Excess amounts of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus — which originate largely from fertilizers and waste water plant discharges — are considered to be the most important problem for the Bay. They spur large algae blooms which block needed sunlight to Bay grasses. They also spur the growth of more algae than fish and other predators can consume. The excess sinks to the bottom and is decomposed by bacteria in a process that depletes the water of oxygen, severely limiting the amount of habitat available for fish and other species.

Computer models indicate that a reduction of about 40 percent would reduce the amount of oxygen-depleted water in the Bay by about 25 percent.

“We know what effluent does to water quality,” said Mike Haire, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Chesapeake Bay and Watershed Management Administration. “The reductions are the right thing to do. The question is, how much and by whom?”

The tributary strategies add fresh detail to those questions. In Maryland, the bulk of the reductions will come from upgrades at waste water treatment plants, followed by farmers.

Pennsylvania’s emphasis, by contrast, is on controlling runoff from agricultural land. The plan outlines reductions sought from a newly enacted nutrient management law, existing voluntary programs, and other conservation efforts aimed primarily at farms.

The district’s plan is the most straightforward: Almost all of its reductions will be achieved by upgrading the massive Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment Plant. A pilot project that will determine the feasibility of the upgrade is expected to begin soon.

Virginia, meanwhile, has yet to release any draft nutrient reduction strategy. A draft strategy for the Potomac River was developed under the administration of former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and is being reviewed by the administration of Gov. George Allen. An official said there is no timetable for the release of the strategy.

Virginia is also supposed to produce “interim” strategies for the Rappahannock, York, and James rivers by the end of the year. Strategies for those rivers are considered interim because computer modeling indicates that because of their proximity to the mouth of the Bay, they have less of an influence on the Bay’s water quality. Final strategies are to be completed later after additional computer modeling and water quality monitoring programs determine the amount of nutrient reductions needed to benefit habitats within those rivers.

None of the draft strategies released so far provide details as to how the reduced nutrient levels would be maintained after the year 2000, which was another goal the Executive Council set in 1992.

What follows is a synopsis of the nutrient reduction strategies developed to date.


Reduction goal: 22.7 million pounds per year of nitrogen, 2.11 million pounds per year of phosphorus.

Maryland officials opted to divide their state into 10 subbasins, and developed a specific nutrient reduction strategy for each. As a result, the techniques used to reach the goal vary from watershed to watershed.

All of the strategies, though, have three common elements:

  • All sewage treatment plants that handle more than 500,000 gallons of waste water per day are expected to install biological and chemical nutrient removal technologies that will dramatically reduce phosphorus and nitrogen discharges. This will affect 50 plants, and makes up the largest single source of nutrient reduction in the Maryland strategy.
  • All existing regulatory nonpoint source control programs — erosion and sediment control, storm water management, and implementation of the state’s Forest Conservation Act — will be fully implemented and enforced.
  • All other nutrient reduction programs currently being implemented will continue at current funding levels.

In several watersheds, those options will meet — or nearly meet — the 40 percent reduction goals.

In watersheds where those programs fail to meet the goal, additional efforts will be implemented as needed. For each watershed, the state, in conjunction with local governments, has developed a table listing various nutrient control options, and the degree to which each could be implemented to reach the 40 percent goal.

The options are divided into programs for developed land (increased storm water management, increased erosion and sediment control, septic pumping, etc.), agricultural land (nutrient management plans, conservation tillage, livestock waste management systems, cover crops, etc.), and resource protection and watershed planning initiatives (forest buffers along streams, grass buffers, marine pumpouts, forest conservation, etc.). The state also plans increased public education efforts.

The greatest sources of nitrogen and phosphorus are waste water treatment plants and runoff from agriculture, which account for more than two-thirds of Maryland’s total nutrient load to the Bay. Of those, treatment plants will be asked to provide the greatest reduction.

That may vary from watershed to watershed, officials say. In some rural watersheds, such as the Choptank, most of the reductions will be made by agriculture — the dominant land use and load source — as the sewage treatment plants supply only a fraction of the watershed’s nutrient load.

“We have a monumental task ahead of us,” said MDE’s Haire, “but we’re trying to be somewhat realistic, fair, and equitable in how we achieve these local reductions.”

The waste water treatment plant upgrades will be expensive. In Maryland, $54 million in construction costs have been spent to remove nitrogen from treatment plants to date; another $234 million will have to be spent to carry out the strategy.

About half of that expense would be borne by local governments. As a result, state officials have been working closely with local officials on those upgrades. Officials say about half the waste water treatment plant upgrades have been agreed to so far.

“We’re trying to distinguish this from a mandate,” said Rob Magnien, of the MDE. “We’re trying to get them to participate by recognizing not only the Bay benefits, but also the many local benefits.”

As part of that, MDE has outlined a detailed program to monitor water quality and track reduction progress as part of its strategy to keep local governments — and residents — informed of what is happening in their waterways.

The second largest reduction, according to the strategy, will come from agriculture. Success there, officials acknowledge, hinges on getting farmers to adopt voluntary programs. To meet its goal, the majority of farmers would have to implement nutrient management plans — field-specific strategies that guide fertilizer use in ways that maximize production but minimize potential for runoff. Also, many farms would need to plant cover crops and adopt tillage practices that would minimize runoff.

Some — including Gov. William Donald Schaefer — have expressed concern about the pace at which farmers have implemented voluntary practices. State officials, and lawmakers remain opposed to mandating nutrient control for farmers, though. The General Assembly for the third year in a row defeated legislation that would have required farmers receiving state cost-share money to develop nutrient management plans.

Statewide, the strategies seek to keep nutrient inputs from urban areas at roughly 1985 levels — a slight reduction from current loads — despite increases in developed land. This will be achieved through a variety of actions, including the installation of storm water controls on some older developed areas, educational efforts to promote septic pumpouts, and an other programs. As a whole, urban and suburban areas generate less nutrients than treatment plants and agriculture, and urban runoff nutrient controls are more costly to implement.

Officials view the Maryland strategy as the starting point for “a comprehensive watershed and locally based approach that will reduce nutrient pollution from most controllable sources.” The strategy notes that as time goes by, new programs may have to be developed to address emerging issues.

To assist in this evolving process, the strategy calls for the creation of “Tributary Management Teams” consisting of state and local government representatives, citizens, farmers, and other affected economic interests, to oversee the implementation of the strategy in each watershed. These teams will be responsible for revising implementation plans to meet nutrient reduction goals; tracking strategy implementation to make sure it is on schedule, fair, and flexible; providing coordination among involved interests; and promoting public education and involvement.

The Maryland strategy also calls for establishment of a “Blue Ribbon Panel” of financial experts from the investment community; local, state and federal governments; academia; and other private sector concerns to identify funding options, as well as any potential private sector support.


Reduction goal: 19.5 million pounds pounds per year of nitrogen (18.3 million pounds Susquehanna, 1.2 million pounds Potomac), 2.42 million pounds per year of phosphorus (2.22 million pounds Susquehanna, 200,000 pounds Potomac).

The overwhelming majority of nutrients from Pennsylvania come from nonpoint source runoff: 92 percent of the nitrogen and 77 percent of the phosphorus. Most of that comes from farms.

As a result, Pennsylvania’s program seeks reductions almost entirely from agricultural lands. Its program is expected to cost about $135 million from 1993 through 1999. But as outlined, it would achieve only 86 percent of the state’s reduction goal.

The bulk of Pennsylvania’s reductions will come from four programs:

  • Implementation of the state’s nutrient management law, which requires the state’s largest animal farms to develop and implement nutrient plans to reduce runoff. This affects about 10 percent of the 21,500 farms in the Bay basin. In addition, the law provides incentives that the state hopes will encourage an equal number of dairy and poultry farms to develop nutrient management plans voluntarily.
  • Continuing state and federal cost-share programs — the state program will be accelerated slightly — to aid farmers in developing and installing voluntary best management practices which reduce runoff, and in the development of nutrient management plans.
  • Expanding the state’s stream bank fencing program in pasture areas which will improve habitat along waterways, reduce runoff, and keep livestock out of streams. About 100 miles have been fenced since 1988, and under an accelerated program the state expects to pay to fence an additional 600 miles of stream bank by the year 2000. Its goal is to fence 20 percent of the stream miles that flow through pastures.
  • Reducing runoff from 250 barnyards located within 100 feet of streams. The installation of best management practices in these areas can reduce nutrient runoff from barnyards by up to 75 percent.

If those programs are implemented as anticipated in the strategy, state figures indicate that between a third and a half of the nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland in its portion of the Chesapeake drainage will have some kind of conservation practice to control nutrients by the year 2000. “I think the Pennsylvania agricultural community is doing about as much as we can expect of them,” said Keith Gentzler, assistant to the deputy secretary for water management in the state Department of Environmental Resources.

Still, DER’s figures show that those efforts would fall short of the goal, reducing annual nitrogen loads by about 17.3 million pounds and phosphorus by 1.55 million pounds. Some who have reviewed the state’s program say even those estimates may be optimistic. Gentzler said the DER is reviewing its estimates.

Because of the shortfall, the state is contemplating further reductions. These could include controls on point sources; accounting for nutrient reductions achieved by management practices initiated without government assistance (and therefore not counted in the reductions); establishing a broader stream corridor protection program that would promote buffers along both urban and rural streams to reduce runoff; better accounting for nutrient reductions achieved through a recent expansion of the state’s erosion and sediment control program; and exploring the possibility of “trading” nutrient load reductions between the Susquehanna and the Potomac or with other states.

Some have suggested that the state consider implementing technologies to reduce nutrients — particularly nitrogen — at waste water treatment plants. But unless the amount of nitogen discharged from point sources is found to be higher than now estimated — about 8 percent of the total — Gentzler said it would be unlikely that the state would opt for sewage treatment plant upgrades to reduce nitrogen.

“The cost of retrofitting our point sources appears to be astronomical,” Gentzler said. Depending on the level of treatment and the number of plants upgraded, the state estimates that nitrogen removal could cost local governments an additional $100 million a year to more than $500 million a year.

“It may not be cost-effective to retrofit point sources in Pennsylvania for nitrogen removal,” Gentzler said. But he said it was possible the state would consider upgrading some waste water treatment plants to increase phosphorus removal — something that would also carry some benefits for Pennsylvania waterways.

Part of the state’s reluctance to pursue point source nitrogen controls is that unlike phosphorus, nitrogen discharges have little impact on the state’s fresh water rivers and streams. The main impact of nitrogen is in the saltier portions of the Bay where it feeds large algae blooms that damage water quality.

Controlling nonpoint sources of nitrogen, by contrast, does carry some benefits to the state. Much of the nonpoint source nitrogen seeps into the soil and finds its way into rivers through the ground water. Elevated nitrogen levels in the ground water — which serves as drinking water for much of south central Pennsylvania — can pose health risks.

Gentzler said it is possible that Pennsylvania may produce a final strategy that does not meet the 40 percent reduction goal. “We all have to face up to the fact that 40 percent was a goal, a target,” he said. “And it may well be that not all the jurisdictions can meet that target without substantial new financial resources.”

In addition, the state plan calls for studying the impact of three large hydroelectric dams on the lower Susquehanna on nutrient loads. Large reservoirs behind the dams serve as giant “traps” for sediment and nutrients flowing down the river, but those materials are then washed out from behind the dams during large storm events, sending a flood of sediment and nutrients downstream. The state said the role of the dams — and potential management strategies for the reservoirs — should be examined for possible nutrient reductions.
The Pennsylvania strategy also calls for cooperative efforts with New York — which contributes 16 percent of the Susquehanna’s nitrogen and 10 percent of its phosphorus — to gain additional nutrient reductions.

District of Columbia

Reduction goal: 3.2 million pounds per year for nitrogen, and 77,000 pounds per year for phosphorus.

The main part of the District of Columbia’s nutrient reduction strategy is simple: upgrade the Blue Plains plant, the largest waste water plant in the region. The plant generates 92 percent of the nitrogen and 25 percent of the phosphorus from the district.

Other sources include combined sewage overflows, which contribute 4 percent of the nitrogen and 68 percent of the phosphorus, and nonpoint source runoff, which accounts for 4 percent of the nitrogen and 7 percent of the phosphorus.

The planned upgrade at Blue Plains would, by itself, remove about 4 million pounds of nitrogen a year, exceeding the district’s nitrogen goal. The city plans to begin a yearlong demonstration project at the plant to test the feasibility of nitrogen reduction technology as soon as an agreement can be reached with the EPA over permit conditions for the test.

Fully installed, the upgrade is expected to cost about $28.2 million for construction, and about $7.4 million annually for maintenance.

The Blue Plains upgrade will do little to meet the district’s phosphorus goal, largely because previous changes at the facility have already achieved massive reductions of that nutrient in the plant’s discharge.

The district plans to reduce phosphorus levels through additional controls on its combined sewer overflows. About a third of the district is served by a system in which storm water runoff and sanitary sewage are combined. During heavy storms, the overloaded system sends the excess waste — untreated — into local waterways. Several efforts in recent years have reduced the amount of untreated wastes being released, and the strategy calls for additional improvements. This would cost in excess of $80 million, according to the strategy. Frequency of overflows may be reduced from 45 to 20 times per year.

The district also plans an array of efforts to control urban runoff. It plans to toughen existing regulations to control runoff from construction sites and new development, public education efforts, and continued habitat restoration efforts in the Anacostia River, including such things as stream bank stabilization and wetland restoration activities that will help reduce runoff.

The draft strategy notes that the district would still fall short of its phosphorus reduction goals — reducing 54 thousand pounds of the 77 thousand pound target — but notes that the district, as a whole, contributes only about 2 percent of the Potomac River’s phosphorus, and has achieved huge reductions of that nutrient through upgrades made at Blue Plains.

About the Nutrient Reductions

  • The 40 percent reduction is measured from a 1985 baseline. The goal is to reduce 74.1 million pounds per year of nitrogen, and 8.44 million pounds per year of phosphorus from that base.
  • Reductions achieved between 1985 and the present time count toward the 40 percent reduction.
  • The 40 percent reduction is measured only from the portion of the nutrient load reaching the Bay that is considered “controllable.” Nutrients that reach the Bay as the result of air pollution, those which originate from portions of the watershed in Delaware, West Virginia, and New York, and natural “background” levels are not considered controllable. As a result, 40 percent of the controllable load is the equivalent of a 20 percent reduction from the total nitrogen load reaching the Bay and a 30 percent reduction of the total phosphorus load.
  • The strategies from each jurisdiction will be adopted by the Executive Council this fall.
  • Since 1985, phosphorus levels in the Bay have decreased about 16 percent, while nitrogen levels have remained unchanged. Generally, nitrogen has proven to be more difficult, and costly, to control than phosphorus.