The cost of meeting new clean water goals for the Chesapeake Bay could run between $1.7 billion and $2.7 billion in Virginia, according to a recent estimate by the Department of Environmental Quality.
Alan Pollock, the DEQ’s director of water quality programs, cautioned that the numbers were only a “back of the envelope” estimate prepared at the request of journalists in Richmond. But he said they framed a realistic cost range for meeting the Chesapeake 2000 agreement’s goal of cleaning the Bay by 2010.
He and others acknowledge that finding that type of money will be difficult as the state is projecting a budget shortfall of more than $2 billion over the next two years.
Most of the state’s nutrient control programs are paid for with money left unspent in the state budget — something that has become nonexistent. “All of our funding mechanisms are based on budget surpluses, and we barely have a budget much less a surplus,” said Jeff Corbin, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The state already has had to delay some of its payments for previously approved wastewater treatment plant upgrades because of a lack of money, and there are no funds to start work at new plants.
The new estimate is a sharp increase from a $643 million estimate released last fall. But that figure was based mostly on complying with existing nutrient reduction plans for major rivers — not the new efforts that will be needed to meet the 2010 goal.
The new projection is in the same range as an estimate produced by Maryland officials late last year for its part of cleaning the Bay.
Still, pegging an exact cost is impossible, Pollock said, because the Bay Program is months away from establishing new water quality goals for the Chesapeake; new nutrient reduction figures are not expected until the end of September. “It’s hard to give any type of a cost for the Bay cleanup, because we don’t know what the endpoints are,” he said.
The Chesapeake 2000 agreement calls for removing the Bay from the EPA’s list of impaired waters by 2010. Parts of the Bay are on the list because they fail to meet state water quality standards. But scientists consider existing standards, especially for oxygen in deep parts of the Bay, as unattainable under any situation.
As a result, the Bay Program launched a complex effort to develop a series of new water quality standards, some of which will be less stringent, and some more stringent, than what exists today.
The shape of the final standards is what will ultimately determine the amount of nutrient and sediment reductions — and the cost — of meeting the 2010 goal.
The difference in assumptions made in the Maryland and Virginia cost estimates underscores that point.
Maryland officials last December estimated it would cost about $4 billion to achieve new nutrient and sediment reductions. (They also estimated it would cost another $3 billion to meet the agreement’s other goals.)
But the Maryland figures assumed new water quality goals so stringent they would require nearly the maximum possible nutrient reductions everywhere. They even assumed replacing all septic systems in the state — which by itself would cost $1 billion.
In contrast, Pollock said he has calculated that it would cost about $4.8 billion to maximize runoff control measures on all farms and other land, as well as to upgrade wastewater treatment plants with “limit of technology” nutrient controls.
In reality, he said, it’s not likely the state could force runoff control practices to be used everywhere, or that all treatment plants could afford to implement the most stringent nutrient control technologies.
Therefore, Pollock’s assumption is that the new standards would require a level of effort about halfway between today’s level of implementation and the maximum possible control effort — or something that would cost in the range of $2 billion to $3 billion.
“If I had to make a judgment, I would probably say the goal won’t be out to the edge of the envelope of what is possible,” he said. “But we’re probably going to have to do a whole lot more than we’re doing now.”
Pollock subtracted $300 million for the estimated cost of developing and implementing required cleanup plans, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads, on rivers in the Virginia portion of the Bay watershed. Although those may help the Bay cleanup, they are reÎuired regardless of the Chesapeake 2000 goal. That resulted in his $1.7 billion to $2.7 billion estimate, a cost that would be shared by state, federal and local governments, as well as private interests.
Pollock said his figure also recognized that there are physical and financial limits on what can be accomplished by 2010, and that states would likely be reluctant to adopt standards they had no hope of meeting. Because states have to review water quality standards every three years, he said further cleanup efforts could be made after 2010, if needed.
He likened the 2010 commitment to the original nutrient reduction goals set in the 1987 Bay Agreement which drove cleanup efforts through 2000. “That was one step,” he said. “Now let’s go to the next step.When we get there, go to the next step if the Bay’s water quality isn’t where we want it to be.”
Corbin agreed that there is a need for federal and state commitments of funding to set rigorous cleanup goals and meet them by 2010.
But he expressed concern about the possibility of using the lack of money, and the short time frame available to meet the goals, as a reason to adopt easier-to-meet standards.
“What concerns us is the state’s lack of commitment to the necessary money,” Corbin said. “At some point, someone is going to have to look pretty realistically at that lack of commitment and decide when the state is going to place a priority on Bay cleanup efforts.”
The 2010 date was set because a federal court order requires TMDLs for all impaired waters in Virginia by 2011. Maryland also faces TMDL deadlines for its portion of the Bay.
Some officials believe developing an enforceable Bay TMDL would be costly, complex and would spur numerous lawsuits. The Chesapeake 2000 agreement sought to head off a TMDL by cleaning up the Bay before the deadline.
Initial computer model estimates suggested that this could require far greater nutrient reductions than have been achieved to date. But in recent months, state and federal officials have begun debating how to factor costs into setting new cleanup objectives.
“There’s a strong consensus that there has to be a cost component to it,” said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA’s Bay Program Office. But, he said, there is no agreement yet about how that will happen.