State and federal agencies in October took the first step toward setting what they hope will be the final nutrient reduction targets for the Chesapeake Bay.
If they achieve the goals, huge areas of water will again be clear enough for underwater grasses to grow, oxygen-starved dead zones should largely disappear and algal blooms will be a thing of the past.
While states have missed past goals, the EPA said it would impose stinging consequences if they fail to keep on track with their new goals.
And their tougher stance was on display at an Oct. 23 meeting of senior officials from all states in the watershed, the District of Columbia and the EPA where the new targets were approved, despite some concerns.
"If we don't, then our most benevolent friends at EPA will do it for us," said Preston Bryant, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, chair of the Bay Program Principals' Staff Committee, which took the action.
Indeed, EPA officials had warned that had the committee failed to set a target, the agency would have acted on its own to set one by the end of the month.
The timely action was needed to keep the development of a Total Maximum Daily Load for the Bay on schedule. A TMDL is a pollution budget that establishes the maximum amount of pollution a body of water can receive and still meet its water quality standards. That pollution "load" is then assigned to different sources.
Because of the failure to meet past cleanup goals, the EPA is under a court order to complete a TMDL by May 2011, although the agency has said it plans to complete the job by the end of next year.
The TMDL, which has more regulatory clout than past cleanup plans, is anticipated to finally complete the job of cleaning the Bay-something the EPA and states agreed to do in 1983.
"The allocations that have tentatively been approved today will get the TMDL process started in earnest," Bryant said after the meeting.
The figures provide the first look at the magnitude of the job ahead. According to computer estimates, enough nutrient control actions had been taken through last year to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay annually to about 283.5 million pounds and phosphorus to about 16.3 million pounds.
To achieve Bay water quality standards, computer model estimates suggest nitrogen needs to be reduced to about 200 million pounds a year and phosphorus to about 15 million pounds.
That means nutrient control efforts are already more than halfway there: In 1985, the Bay Program estimates 397 million pounds of nitrogen and 28 million pounds of phosphorus entered the Bay. But, at least for nitrogen, the pace of nutrient reductions will have to be accelerated to meet the 2025 deadline.
Controlling the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Bay has long been the cornerstone of cleanup efforts. Excess amounts of the nutrients fuel algal blooms, which block sunlight from underwater grass beds which provide critical habitat for juvenile crabs, fish and waterfowl. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and are decomposed in a process that removes oxygen from the water. Sediment entering the Bay adds to the problems by further clouding the water, and smothering bottom habitats.
Goals will also be set for sediment, but those numbers will not be available for several months.
The numbers are tentative because they will almost certainly change. The overall target is a number that computer models indicate would improve oxygen levels in the deepest part of the Bay.
Those nutrient reductions would also improve water quality throughout the Chesapeake. But the Bay and the tidal portions of its tributaries are divided into 92 distinct segments, each of which must attain water quality standards tailored to protect each habitat. In some areas, such as small creeks and coves with poor circulation, or areas which severe water clarity problems, the reductions set in October may not be enough to meet water quality standards and more efforts will be needed.
Also, states have the option to tweak how and where they achieve reductions. They can choose to put more emphasis on areas where efforts will be most economic or effective, and reduce their efforts elsewhere, as long as Bay water quality goals are met. Likewise, states may be able to make trade-offs between nitrogen and phosphorus reductions in some places as long as Bay water goals are met everywhere.
Also, the computer models used to estimate the amount of nutrients washing off the watershed, and their impact on the Bay, are still in the final stages of completion and final versions of both models will likely cause some revisions to the numbers.
"I think the good news is the six states and the District of Columbia have a rough target to shoot for in the next generation of implementation plans," said Jeff Lape, director of the EPA Bay Program Office.
Indeed, while not final, the numbers are close enough for states and the District to begin the job of writing the watershed implementation plans that the EPA is requiring as part of the final Bay TMDL.
Unlike the old tributary strategies written to achieve previous goals set in 1992 and then updated in 2003, the agency is requiring the new plans to have much more detail. States are expected to subdivide the allocations by pollutant source sector (ie. wastewater, stormwater, septics, agriculture, etc.) The reductions are to be distributed by county or other more localized scales.
By setting more local goals, EPA officials say local governments, conservation districts and watershed organizations will be more engaged in taking nutrient and sediment reduction actions, and it will be easier to track the implementation of those actions, improving accountability.
The implementation plans will also be the basis for milestones the six states and the District must set detailing specific actions that they will take in two-year increments through 2025. States are expected to outline contingency actions they will take if efforts are falling short.
Also, the EPA has indicated in a letter to each state that it expects 60 percent of the nutrient reduction goals to be achieved by 2017, the halfway point to 2025.
Some expressed reservations about the target, though. James Tierney, assistant commissioner for water resources with the New York Department of Conservation, said the goals and implementation plans were designed more to clean up "the ring around the Bay" than address local water quality issues. He also contended that states were being asked to commit to nutrient reductions and a deadline "in the dark" before knowing how much they would cost, or who would pay.
"We're being asked to write a blank check without all the information," Tierney said.
Representatives from the District of Columbia, who face a hugely expensive program, also expressed concerns about the costs.
"We all share those concerns on some levels," Bryant said. But the Bay Program has been increasingly criticized for delays and missed targets, and most states indicated they wanted to keep the TMDL process on schedule-the first round of TMDL public meetings across the watershed are set to begin in November.
Final nutrient and sediment loads are expected for each of the 92 tidal Bay segments at the end of April and states are expected to submit preliminary watershed implementation plans to the EPA by June 1.
By mid-August, the EPA expects to publish a draft TMDL for a 60-day public review period and to conduct another round of public meetings. States are to submit final watershed implementation plans by Nov. 1.
The EPA expects to publish a final Bay deadline by the end of December 2010.
Bryant, who will be leaving his position as secretary of natural resources and was chairing his final Bay meeting, said he was pleased that the process to get to the December 2010 deadline-and hopefully setting the last Bay cleanup goal-is now in motion. "It was a nice meeting to end on, having taken this significant step," he said.
TMDL Public Meetings
The EPA has scheduled 14 public meetings throughout the watershed's six states - Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York-and the District of Columbia from early November through mid-December 2009.
The Bay TMDL will establish and assign the pollution reductions necessary to meet Bay clean water standards. The TMDL will be supported by performance and accountability features to ensure needed actions are taken.
EPA officials will outline the Bay TMDL and receive public input during the sessions. State and local officials are also expected to participate.
A draft TMDL will be issued in August 2010, followed by a public comment period. A final TMDL will be established by the EPA in December 2010.
The schedule is:
Martinsburg, WV: 6-8 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Robert C. Byrd Health Science Center.
Moorefield, WV: 6-8 p.m. Nov. 5 at Moorefield High School.
District of Columbia: 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Ashley, PA: 2-4 p.m. Nov. 17 at Bentleys.
Williamsport, PA: 5-7 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Genetti Hotel.
State College, PA: 2-4 p.m. Nov. 19 at Toftrees Golf Resort & Conference Center.
Lancaster, PA: 2-4 p.m. Nov. 23 at Franklin & Marshall College, Alumni Sports and Fitness Center.
Binghamton, NY: 2-4 p.m. Dec. 1 at Broome County Public Library.
Baltimore, MD: 2:30-4:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Maryland Department of the Environment Office.
Wye Mills, MD: 1:30-3:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at Chesapeake College Todd Performing Arts Center.
Laurel, DE: 5-7 p.m. Dec. 10 at Laurel Public Library.
Williamsburg, VA: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 15 at 2007 Legacy Hall.
Penn Laird, VA: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 16 at Spotswood High School.
Fredericksburg, VA: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at Wingate Inn.
For details, visit www.epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl.