Bay state officials are fleshing out details about the short-term cleanup milestones they plan to begin setting in May to accelerate pollution control efforts and improve accountability in the Bay restoration effort.
The Executive Council has acknowledged that the 2010 cleanup deadline set in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement will be missed by a wide margin, and lagging cleanup efforts have drawn fire from environmental groups, scientists, politicians, editorial writers and others.
At their meeting in November, members of the Executive Council expressed frustration with the slow pace of progress in the Bay's restoration. Instead of setting only long-term goals, they pledged to begin setting interim two-year milestones that they said would hold states and agencies more accountable.
"The past practice has been to set a date that is way out in the future because we know there is a lot of work that needs to get done," said Jeff Corbin, Virginia assistant secretary of natural resources. "But by the time that date rolls around, none of the people who put their name on paper agreeing to that deadline are around to be accountable for it anymore."
The first of the milestones is expected to be established when the Executive Council meets at Mount Vernon in mid-May.
The council is the top policy-making body for the state-federal Bay cleanup effort, and includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures. They are also expected to set a new, long-term goal for completing the Bay cleanup.
But, Corbin said, "the more important thing is to have these two-year milestones so we can show on a much shorter time scale what we are going to do, and whether or not we are getting it done. It is all about accountability to the public."
Since November, Corbin has led a group of state and federal officials that has been fleshing out details about the milestones. Many issues remain to be resolved, but the framework is in place. For example, they have agreed that the milestones will focus only on water quality goals-reductions of nutrient and sediment.
States will have flexibility in setting their milestones. For instance, some may set goals for implementing a certain number of agricultural runoff controls, others may choose to enact new laws or regulations or increase funding for voluntary programs, while others may promote the planting of switchgrass or streamside buffers. Or, a state may undertake a combination of actions.
Whatever they commit to, the actions have to be measurable and trackable, and states must be able to translate them into a common accounting system-such as the total amount of nitrogen and phosphorus reduced-that would be used by all jurisdictions.
The two-year milestones are intended to force accelerated cleanup actions and will ultimately meet the new, yet-to-be-determined cleanup deadline. But the level of reductions for a particular state may vary from milestone to milestone.
In addition, the milestones will come with some type of "contingency" that will happen if states fail to meet their goals. Those could include such things as a commitment to make up for any shortfall as part of the next milestone, or committing to another course of action if they miss the mark.
"I don't see how you can be accountable without saying, 'Here is what we are going to do, and if we don't make it, here is plan B,'" Corbin said.
The first milestone will likely cover two-and-a-half years, from May 2009 through the end of 2011. After that, milestones will cover two-year periods.
In addition to making the public more accountable, the milestones will provide evidence to the EPA that the states are proceeding on schedule to achieve their new cleanup goal. As part of a required new cleanup plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, states have to provide "reasonable assurance" that the cleanup goal will be met.
The definition of reasonable assurance is vague. But the EPA in a letter to state officials last summer said establishing one- or two-year milestones that demonstrate increased implementation of pollution control measures should be part of the reasonable assurance presented in the TMDL. Repeated failure to meet them could result in federal action.
"Those milestones would be part of that trigger, where we would say 'We don't think there is enough progress being made. We need to go back and look at that,'" said Rich Batiuk, assistant director for science with the EPA Bay Program Office.
"That's when we would say you need to march out more specific contingencies at a bigger scale," he said.