Virginia's portion of the Potomac River drainage is well on its way toward meeting the Bay Program's 40 percent nutrient reduction goal for phosphorus, but significantly lags for nitrogen, with more than three-quarters of that reduction still to come to meet a turn-of-the-century deadline.

The figures are contained in draft tributary strategy aimed at achieving the nutrient reduction in Virginia's portion of the Potomac basin. The draft was the subject of hearings and public comment in late September and October. A final document is expected this winter.

At its heart, the strategy calls for cultivating "a shared sense of responsibility" to reduce nutrient pollution among individuals, local governments, interest groups and businesses. By forging new partnerships among these groups, the strategy envisions reaching the goal through voluntary initiatives, largely at the local government and regional level.

"To achieve our goal, the Commonwealth will not establish any unfunded mandates nor will any requirements unfairly place responsibility for nutrient reduction on limited segments of citizens or businesses," the strategy document says. ÒThe solutions identified through this process should be cost-effective, equitable, practical and based on the best science and research available."

The draft says that Virginia is "committed to the approach of locally based strategies" unless it becomes apparent such an approach will not achieve the nutrient reduction goal.

Local governments, businesses and citizens have something to gain, the document says, because "a healthy Potomac River improves economic opportunities for Virginians and a healthy economic base provides the resources and funding necessary to pursue Potomac River restoration and enhancement activities." The cost of meeting the 40 percent goal would range from a low of $71 million to a high of $114 million.

The draft Potomac strategy brings Virginia nearer to a commitment made by state governors in 1992 to meet the 40 percent nutrient reduction target through the development of "tributary strategies." Those strategies are intended to spell out how states will reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in each of the Bay's major tributaries in order to reach the overall Bay target.

So far, Maryland has completed tributary strategies and has appointed special "tributary teams" to implement them. The District of Columbia has completed a draft strategy, while Pennsylvania completed a draft which fell short of the nutrient reduction target and is being rewritten. Virginia's Potomac strategy has drawn criticism for appearing to place a heavy burden on local governments without spelling out what role the state will play in implementing and financing nutrient reduction efforts. The document, for example, lists every elected local government official in the Virginia's portion of the basin, but nota single state contact person.

"Certainly, local governments have a role, and local officials need to step up to the plate," said Joe Maroon, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The unfortunate thing is the state appears to be backing off the commitment that it made when it signed the 40 percent percent agreement, and leaving it to local governments and others to handle it."

While it commits the state to the local-level approach unless demonstrated it will not work, Maroon noted that the document never indicates when such a decision would be made or what would trigger it.

The document also lays out a variety of funding mechanisms that could be used to finance nutrient reduction efforts, but does not indicate whether the state actually supports their use. Because Virginia is a "Dillon Rule" state, Maroon said, local governments are limited in levying taxes unless they are first approved by the General Assembly.

"At this point, the state claims to be a partner, but has been unwilling to commit additional financial support for conservation farming practices or sewage treatment plant upgrades," Maroon said. "If budget priorities reflect state priorities, then one must wonder where the tributaries lie in the state's priority list. The bottom line is to pay now or pay more later."

Maroon said it was critical that state officials do a good job writing the Potomac strategy because it is also intended as a model for the development of nutrient reduction strategies for other Virginia rivers.

Tom Hopkins, Virginia deputy secretary for natural resources, said that the final version of the strategy will more clearly spell out how the state plans to involve local governments and citizens in strategy implementation.

"We're working on that right now, exactly how we are going to approach these folks and get them directly involved, not just in terms of rhetoric, in truly developing their own localized strategies," Hopkins said.

Specifically, he said, the state is looking at various types of incentives that can be used to "take this thing from theory to action."

"I think between now and the end of the year you are going to see some things that are not in this draft strategy," he said. "There's going to be some things that we have to do to make sure that all communities are involved. And we're working on that."

Hopkins noted that secretary of Natural Resources Becky Norton Dunlop spent six weeks meeting with local governments to involve them in strategy development.

The state's approach seems to be supported by the responses gained from a questionnaire it distributed last year. The responses indicated that most people thought local governments could or should do more to reduce nonpoint source runoff. A majority of respondents, including farmers, also stated that voluntary approaches should be backed by enforcement if publicly accepted standards and goals for nutrient reductions are not met.

The draft strategy also notes that several major voluntary nutrient control efforts are already under way. The Virginia Poultry Federation has announced that all four of the major poultry integrators in the state will require new growers to have a nutrient management plan before going into operation. Meanwhile, the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments has embarked on a voluntary pilot project to explore additional nutrient controls at wastewater treatment plants in the region.

The draft strategy acknowledges that the task ahead is compounded by rapid growth in the region, which will offset some of the nutrient reductions already made. At 14,670 square miles, the Potomac basin is the second largest inthe Chesapeake's watershed, and the largest portion, 5,723 square miles falls in Virginia. About 1.9 million people live in Virginia's portion of the basin, but that number is expected to grow 17 percent between 1990 and 2000.

Taking growth into account, Virginia will need to reduce nitrogen loads another 32.8 percent, and phosphorus by 7.7 percent before the turn of the century to meet the Bay Program goal, according to figures in the draft strategy.

To close that gap, the document envisions dividing Virginia's portion of the basin into four regions, with the state setting a nutrient reduction target for each. The four regions are: Upper Shenandoah, Lower Shenandoah, Northern Virginia and the Northern Neck.

State officials hope that will facilitate the development of regional strategies in which jurisdictions may pool resources to take advantage of economies of scale, or pursue solutions through cost-effective techniques such as nutrient trading.

Localities are encouraged to form "tributary teams" consisting of representatives of local government, business, industry, agriculture and citizen groups to offer advice on program development and funding, and to foster voluntary nutrient reduction efforts by the private sector.

As regional management scenarios are designed, the document says, the private sector will see a greater benefit in becoming involved because businesses want consistent rules over a wide region to improve predictability for investment and cost projections. This may spur more voluntary actions to help meet the goals, such as those undertaken by the poultry federation, the draft states.

Local strategies may include local ordinances to reduce impacts of future land use conversions or development; regional stormwater treatment facilities; upgrades of wastewater treatment plants; promotion of voluntary nutrient reductions among local businesses and industries; and providing additional funds for the implementation of agricultural runoff controls within their jurisdiction.

The document acknowledges that "traditional revenue generation techniques" are unlikely to fully fund the nutrient reduction program, and offers a menu of financing possibilities. These include such things as pooling debt among communities into a single tax revenue bond issues; using state revolving loan fund money for nonpoint source pollution control; establishing stormwater "utilities" to asses landowners for the costs of stormwater management; taxing lawn and garden fertilizers; establishing a fee for septic tank installation; offering tax deductions for certain kinds of agricultural equipment; as well as a variety of other mechanisms.

The draft strategy also promotes the idea of making reductions cost effective through nutrient trading. The document said although nutrient trading was not widely supported in the state's questionnaire, the need to find cost-effective solutions "point Virginia in that direction."

"The most effective method of accomplishing this will be nutrient-trading system that can move funding among nutrient reduction measures and among regions," the draft strategy said. For example, the document suggests that some places may find it more beneficial to provide cost-share money to agricultural areas where more economical runoff control techniques are not fully utilized rather than paying for additional nutrient reductions at sewage treatment plants.

In the document, the state pledges to help evaluate cost effectiveness and alternative funding mechanisms for local strategies. Areas actively pursuing development and implementation of local nutrient reduction strategies will receive priority in the allocation of any grant funds or other revenue sources that may become available through the state.

The Baywide 40 percent nutrient reduction goal was established in the 1987 Bay Agreement approved by the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, which consists of the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the administrator of the EPA; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a panel that represents the legislatures of the three states.

Nutrients are considered the largest single threat to Bay water quality. Excess amounts of nutrients spur large algae blooms which block sunlight to underwater grasses that provide important habitat for many Bay species. When the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom and is decomposed in a process that depletes the water of oxygen needed for the survival of many aquatic species.