State and federal Bay cleanup leaders proclaimed in July that — after years of coming up short — their efforts to stem pollution from farms, wastewater treatment plants and urban stormwater systems are finally on the right trajectory to meet cleanup goals for the nation's largest estuary.
Environmental groups agreed with government officials that an experiment launched in the summer of 2009, which set short-term cleanup "milestones," has proven successful in prodding greater pollution-control efforts, and that in general, states have made significant overall progress in recent years, although improvements are still needed in many areas.
The milestone concept stemmed from frustration that Bay cleanup efforts historically failed to meet their lofty pollution-control goals which were typically set so far in the future that there was little pressure on agencies — and governors — to show progress.
The intent of the milestones was to hold states more accountable by setting shorter-term nutrient reduction goals, and spelling out the actions needed to meet them.
At the Chesapeake Executive Council meeting in July, cleanup leaders declared their first milestone goals, which were to be reached by the end of 2011, had been a success.
"The two-year milestones set in 2009 remain on track," declared EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The council is the top policy-making body for the Bay effort, and includes the EPA administrator; the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the District of Columbia mayor; and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.
Information presented at that meeting showed mixed results for the implementation of individual pollution-control efforts. While jurisdictions exceeded objectives in some areas, they fell short in others.
For instance, the District of Columbia installed nearly four times as many rain barrels as called for in its milestones, but only half as many square feet of green roofs. New York more than tripled its goal for animal waste management systems, but fell well short of its goal for the precision feeding of livestock.
Overall, though, the nutrient reductions seem to have approached the goals established in 2009. Progress is estimated by feeding information about pollution-control actions into a computer model that estimates their impact on the Bay.
From July 2009 through June 2011, model estimates indicate that state actions reduced the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay by about 15.7 million pounds a year, and phosphorus by 0.9 million pounds. That's roughly the level of nutrient reductions that had been sought, but because of model changes since 2009, direct comparisons are not possible.
In any event, the estimates represent a substantial acceleration in nutrient reduction efforts: During most of the last decade, nitrogen reductions had averaged between 3 million and 4 million pounds annually, according to model estimates.
A review of state data by environmental groups concurred that the milestones had helped accelerate progress. But it also noted a number of shortcomings.
In many instances, the review raised concerns about the quality of data being provided, which casts doubt about whether all practices are being fully implemented and maintained.
"Milestones are about getting results — clean rivers and streams throughout the region," said Hilary Harp Falk, director of Choose Clean Water, a coalition of more than 200 organizations in the Bay watershed. "It is our job to keep the states honest, celebrate their successes and demand strategies to deal with shortfalls in pollution reduction."
Data quality is an issue that has been of growing concern. A group of state and federal officials have been meeting for several months to establish consistent protocols for tracking and verifying the existence and performance of various nutrient reduction practices throughout the watershed. Its recommendations are expected early next year.
Even as data from the states show the pace of pollution-control efforts is accelerating, water quality monitoring in the rivers presents a murkier picture.
Since 1985, water monitoring has shown a downward trend in nitrogen at two-thirds of the sampling sites in the Bay watershed, according to a report released at the council meeting. But over the last decade, improvements have been seen in less than half of the monitoring sites, while most have had no significant change — results that suggest the rate of nitrogen reductions may be slowing. Phosphorus has shown similar trends.
In the Bay, figures released at the council meeting show that levels of dissolved oxygen have not shown a strong trend since cleanup efforts began in the mid 1980s, while chlorophyll a (a measure of algae) and water clarity have had worsening trends over that time.
Although the original milestones were largely voluntary when set in 2009, the EPA has adopted the concept as cleanup efforts morphed into a more regulatory program under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet.
The TMDL, finalized by the EPA at the end of 2010, establishes a limit on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that can reach the Bay from each river, and state. Actions to achieve those limits must be implemented by 2025, but the EPA is requiring that states establish milestones laying out what they will do in two-year increments.
The first milestones under the pollution diet were submitted by states in January and must be attained by the end of 2013.
If those goals are met, computer models estimate that they would further reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay by 16.28 million pounds a year, and phosphorus by another 1.1 million pounds.
"The state blueprints and two-year milestones lay out a clear roadmap to restoring the Bay and the rivers and streams that feed it," said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We have begun the journey and need to take stock on a regular basis of both the progress made and the course corrections necessary to ensure we reach the destination as promised by 2025."
To meet TMDL goals, the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay needs to be reduced by 75.39 million pounds a year from 2009 levels and phosphorus needs to be cut by 14.55 million pounds.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are considered the main contributors to poor Bay water quality because they spur algae blooms, which block sunlight critical to underwater grasses that support crabs, fish and waterfowl. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that depletes the water of oxygen, creating so-called dead zones.
States exceeded several of the first milestones, fell short in others
States implemented a wide range of actions between 2009 and 2011 to meet their nutrient reduction milestone goals — from building rain gardens to hauling animal manure out of the watershed — with mixed results.
A report compiled by environmental groups examined information from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia for a subset of pollution control practices considered particularly important for meeting overall goals from the three main pollution sectors: agriculture, urban and suburban runoff, and wastewater treatment plants.
The review by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Choose Clean Water, a coalition of more than 200 organizations, not only examined progress, but also sought to identify issues of concern.
The review found each state was ahead of schedule in implementing some actions, but behind in others — something they acknowledged was to be expected with the first set of milestones.
But it also raised concerns.
For a number of practices, it raised concern about the quality of data provided by the states.
It flagged a shortfall in Pennsylvania's nutrient management goal as particularly worrisome because nutrient management plans are required for manure application in the state.
The report suggested that a shortfall in Virginia's forest buffer goal should prompt consideration of increased incentives for those efforts.
Several Maryland goals were met, the report noted, after they were adjusted downward.
Here's how states fared in the review:
Of nine practices evaluated, Virginia met six and missed the mark on three.
For wastewater treatment plants, the state was well ahead of schedule for reductions in both nitrogen and phosphorus. In fact, it had achieved its 2025 goal for wastewater phosphorus reductions.
For urban/suburban lands, it was behind schedule for applying nutrient management on 133,000 acres a year, but significantly exceeded its goals for implementing stormwater control practices on 49,000 acres, and improving 806 septic systems.
For agriculture, it was behind schedule for planting 157,000 acres of cover crops a year, and for its goal of planting 10,000 acres of forest buffers; but it was well ahead of its goal of restoring 36 acres of wetlands and planting 2,000 acres of grass buffers.
Of 10 practices evaluated, Pennsylvania met or exceeded its goals for four and fell short on six.
For wastewater, the state met its nitrogen reduction goal, and exceeded its phosphorus goal. It actually achieved its 2025 reduction goal for phosphorus reductions from wastewater.
For urban/suburban lands, it slightly exceeded its goal of connecting 7,353 septic systems to sewer systems; but slightly missed its goal of restoring 4,400 feet of urban streams. It made little progress on its goal of treating 8,690 acres of land with stormwater management improvements.
For agriculture, it missed its goals of implementing 86,567 acres of no-till land, placing 129,250 acres under nutrient management and 327,599 acres under conservation plans. It also achieved just a little more than a third of its goal of planting 174,818 acres of cover crops a year. But it more than doubled its goal of planting 19,059 acres of forest buffers.
Of eight practices evaluated, Maryland exceeded its goals in five, came very close in one, and fell short in two.
For wastewater, it was ahead of schedule for both nitrogen and phosphorus reductions.
For urban/suburban lands, it barely missed its goal of improving 3,139 septic systems, and missed its goal of retrofitting stormwater controls on 90,000 acres of developed lands.
For agriculture, the state exceeded its goals of planting 895 acres of forest buffers, restoring 1,155 acres of wetlands and annually planting 325,000 acres of cover crops. It fell short of its goal of establishing 3,000 acres of stream fencing.
Court hearing on Bay TMDL set for Oct. 4
After a year and a half of receiving legal briefs, a federal judge this fall will hear arguments over whether the EPA had the legal authority to develop, and require states to implement, the new Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.
Within days of its release on Dec. 29, 2010, the American Farm Bureau Federation filed suit in federal District Court in Harrisburg challenging the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, which established enforceable limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that could enter the Bay from each state and major tributary.
A number of farm groups, along with the National Home Builders Association, have joined the suit.
In August, District Court Judge Silvia Rambo set oral arguments on the suit for Oct. 4. Her decision is expected within a few months of the hearing.
The Clean Water Act requires that TMDLs be developed for any waterbody that fails to meet its water quality standards. This includes all of the Bay and its tidal tributaries. The Bay TMDL — which is actually divided into 276 separate TMDLs — is the largest, most complex TMDL ever developed. The EPA called it "historic" upon release.
But the plaintiffs contend that the EPA exceeded its regulatory authority and impinged on the responsibilities of states in assigning pollution reductions to individual sources in the TMDL. It questioned the science, and the accuracy of computer models the agency used in setting pollution limits. The suit also contends the public comment period was too short for such a complex plan.
The EPA contends that development of the TMDL was well within its authority under the Clean Water Act, and disputes that it overrode state authority, noting that states were involved in the TMDL development process. It also contends that outside groups had adequate opportunity to comment.
A number of environmental groups, as well as several municipal water associations, have intervened on the EPA's side in the case.