A year after the EPA put the Bay on a "pollution diet," states are providing new details about how they - and local governments - will curb the nutrient binge that transformed the Bay's once-clear water into a murky soup over the last 50 years.
States in mid-December began turning in first drafts of new Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans - or WIPS - that will guide cleanup efforts through 2017 and ultimately affect nearly all of the 16-million-plus residents of the Bay watershed, from how much they pay in sewage bills and stormwater fees to how farmers apply manure and fertilizer to their fields.
The WIPs spell out the programs that will lead to a healthier Bay with clearer water filled with lush underwater grass beds instead of algae-stained water filled with oxygen-starved dead zones.
In addition, the states and the EPA in January will release new two-year milestones. While the WIPs provide broad strategies about how to achieve Bay cleanup goals, state milestones spell out the specific actions each will take during 2012 to control Bay pollutants.
The Phase II WIPs and new milestones are the next steps on the path toward implementing the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet, which was finalized in December 2010. The TMDL sets absolute, enforceable limits on the amount of water-fouling nutrients and sediment that can reach the Bay from each state and major tributary.
It is the largest cleanup plan of its kind in the nation, and requires states to fully implement their pollution control programs by 2025.
"We've come a long way in the last year," said Jim Edward, deputy director of the EPA's Bay Program Office. And the progress hasn't just been in writing plans, he said: "We are continuing to see a lot of on-the-ground implementation."
It has, nonetheless, been a turbulent year for the cleanup effort. The EPA and many environmental advocates hailed the TMDL as a historic step toward finally cleaning up the Bay after voluntary deadlines set for 2000 and 2010 were missed by wide marks. But the new, more enforceable cleanup program has also drawn intense criticism because of its expected high cost and potential to increase regulations on farmers, homeowners and others.
Agricultural groups almost immediately filed suit to block the TMDL. The U.S. House of Representatives voted last spring to block its implementation (The Senate disagreed and the measure failed). EPA officials were criticized for their actions at Congressional hearings. And states and local governments grumbled about new regulations and high costs.
Nonetheless, the program moved forward. While the farm suit is still pending, a report on which the plaintiffs based their criticism of the EPA models used to set cleanup goals was called into question by a panel of independent scientists who said the report was "flawed" and "does not provide sufficient evidence to suspend implementation of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL."
In December, Congress provided a boost to EPA Bay efforts, approving a $3 million increase, to $57.4 million, for 2012. That's significantly less than the $67 million requested by President Obama, but noteworthy given that Congress cut overall EPA funding by $300 million.
But the cost of the cleanup, which could have a price tag in the tens of billions of dollars over the next 15 years, remains a concern, as much of that will fall on cash-strapped local governments. Several draft WIPs noted that during outreach meetings local governments repeatedly expressed worries about costs.
Maryland cited costs as one reason why, in its draft Phase II WIP, it punted its Bay cleanup goal to 2025. Previously, the state had sought reach its nutrient and sediment goals in 2020 - five years ahead of schedule.
The District of Columbia noted that even federal agencies - which own nearly a third of the land in the district - are worried about costs. It pointed out that the agencies consider their nutrient reductions "strictly optional and dependent upon future federal funding levels in coming years." The district said its Phase II WIP assumed those reductions would happen, but that it has no way to force federal compliance.
WIPs and milestones are part of an elaborate "accountability framework" crafted by the EPA to provide assurance that the new pollution diet, unlike past goals, is met. States that submit inadequate plans or milestones can face sanctions from the EPA.
Phase I WIPs written in fall 2010 were large-scale plans that described how states would achieve the nutrient and sediment reductions needed to restore Bay water quality.
To provide more certainty that nutrient reductions will be achieved, states are to show in their Phase II WIPs that local governments and conservation districts are engaged and understand their Bay cleanup responsibilities. The plans are also to provide more local level detail about what cleanup actions will be taken, such as ordinances that will be adopted, or the number of nutrient control practices placed on the ground.
But the draft Phase II WIPs submitted to meet EPA's Dec. 15 deadline mostly lacked detailed local strategies. Many states complained about the rushed time frame to complete the drafts. Because of updates to computer models, the EPA was accused of being late in getting revised nutrient reduction numbers to the states, and when it did, many states found that numbers for specific counties had changed dramatically.
Ultimately, the EPA modified its earlier request that states set nutrient and sediment targets for each county or small watersheds. Instead, it said that the states could describe the actions that local governments would take to meet the goals - but those actions had to add up to limits set for the major river basins within each state.
West Virginia did not publicly release its plans, saying it would do so in January when it had more details. Maryland released a draft with a disclaimer warning "against drawing conclusions based on this draft" and said it would release a final draft for public comment on Jan. 15.
The drafts released in December detailed numerous meetings conducted in recent months to bring local officials up-to-date on what the Bay cleanup effort will mean for them. Some offered examples of how local nutrient control initiatives may work. States anticipated providing greater local-level details in final plans, due March 30.
Still, the draft Phase II WIPs did provide new information about how states will implement their own nutrient reduction programs.
For instance, Pennsylvania said it added four new positions in the Department of Environmental Protection to increase inspections and compliance for its large animal feedlot, stormwater and agricultural regulatory programs. Once trained, the new staff will result in an increase of 450 agricultural inspections, 50 stormwater inspections and 100 compliance actions per year.
Virginia described its new septic system regulations, which will require a 50 percent nitrogen reduction from all new septic systems installed beginning in December 2013.
Others offered similar details.
But some states remain unhappy with parts of the TMDL process.
Pennsylvania questioned the legality of the way the EPA uses computer models to measure progress toward Bay goals. New York, the most distant state involved in the Bay cleanup effort, didn't submit a draft Phase II WIP by the deadline. Several municipalities in the state have indicated they may file suit against the EPA over the TMDL.
The EPA will review the drafts and submit comments to states by Feb 15. The states will revise their plans based on the comments. The final Phase II WIPs are due March 30. Those plans will guide cleanup efforts through 2017, by which time controls that would achieve 60 percent of the nutrient reductions need to be in place. Then, Phase III WIPs will be developed to guide efforts through 2025.
Links to state websites containing draft Phase II WIPs and information about any public comment periods can be found at www.epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl/.