Halfway to Chesapeake Bay cleanup goal, the region faces a daunting task

The Bay states remain committed to offsetting the impacts of new growth between now and the 2025 deadline. 

The writing of next-generation Chesapeake Bay cleanup plans will kick into high gear this fall after state and federal officials in July approved new pollution reduction targets that will guide the multibillion-dollar Bay cleanup effort through 2025.

By next April, the states — with input from local officials — are to submit draft plans to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for review. Those watershed implementation plans, or WIPs, are supposed to demonstrate that states have realistic plans to meet their new goals, as well as adequate programs, regulations and funding to get the job done.

It will be a daunting task, most agree. Meeting the goals will require a significant ramping up of Bay-related cleanup activities in most areas.

“We have already done some heavy lifting, and we have great signs of progress … the investments and the work and the commitment to the TMDL framework have been paying off,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles, who chairs the state-federal Bay Program committee that approved the new goals in July. “But we all have heavy lifting in store for us.”

While the Bay has slowly improved, reducing the water-fouling nutrients reaching it has been difficult work. And, it’s increasingly likely that further action will be required after the 2025 goal.

Exactly how much the cleanup will cost is unknown, and that concerns many local officials who will bear much of the burden. The Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee flatly told cleanup leaders in a letter that they needed to come up with realistic cost estimates and provide more financial help to local governments if efforts are to succeed.

“So how much is needed? The cost estimates we have seen is in the billions,” the advisory committee said in its letter to governors.              

How we got here

Since the mid-1980s, efforts throughout the 64,000-square-mile Bay watershed have sought to reduce the amount of two nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — that enter the Bay, where they fuel algae blooms that cloud its water and ultimately cause oxygen-starved “dead zones.”

After several voluntary plans fell short of earlier cleanup goals, the EPA, working with all of the states in the Bay watershed, imposed a more regulatory program in 2010, known as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (or Chesapeake TMDL), and set a cleanup deadline of 2025.

That plan established the maximum amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that can reach the Chesapeake in a given year and still allow the Bay to reach its clean water goals. States wrote their first round of WIPs to meet those goals, with their efforts to be monitored by the EPA.

As the region reached the halfway point to the 2025 goal, figures show that it is on track to meet the phosphorus goal, but off the pace for nitrogen.

But results varied by state. All except Pennsylvania achieved their phosphorus goals; New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania missed their sediment goals; and New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware missed their goals for nitrogen.

Pennsylvania not only missed all of its goals, it accounted for the vast majority of the region’s shortfall for nitrogen. The District of Columbia, in contrast, has met its 2025 goals.

Next steps

The new pollution reduction targets approved in July were made using updated computer models that incorporate new information and science. Therefore, the actual goals for each state are different from those assigned in 2010 and 2011.

The new numbers, for instance, reflect refined information about the impact of nutrients from different places on Bay water quality, as well as the relative importance of nitrogen and phosphorus. For example, nutrients from the Potomac River are more important to Bay water quality than in earlier versions of the model, and nitrogen is more important relative to phosphorus.

And, for the watershed as a whole, the numbers show that less progress was made for nitrogen — generally the more problematic pollutant — than previously thought. The old model had shown that the region had accomplished 37 percent of its nitrogen goal through the end of 2017; the new model shows only 30 percent of the 2025 goal had been achieved.

The new pollution reduction targets were divided across six states that drain into the Bay — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York — and the District of Columbia.

States are to complete writing their WIPs by April 12, 2019, after which they will be reviewed by the EPA. Final WIPs are to be completed by Aug. 9, 2019.

The EPA says the plans have to outline all of the actions needed to achieve the pollution reduction goals. They also have to show that the states have adequate programs, funding, regulations and legislation in place to make sure those actions will actually be implemented.

The EPA has also directed states to work with local and regional governments and organizations to establish “local planning goals” as part of the WIPs. Unlike state-level goals, the local goals would not be enforceable by the EPA, but would serve as a mechanism to improve local involvement and track progress at a finer scale. Pennsylvania and Maryland, for example, are planning to set county goals, while Virginia will set goals for regional planning or conservation districts.

The EPA also called for the WIPs to describe how each state will engage with local partners; what roles they will play in implementing plans; and what type of programmatic, financial support and technical assistance the states will provide to help with implementation.

Challenges ahead

The road ahead, especially for nitrogen, will be challenging. Not only is the region not on track for that nutrient, figures show that 87 percent of the nitrogen reductions since 2009 — the baseline for measuring progress — came from wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Nearly all major plants have now been upgraded, meaning that most of the remaining pollution reductions will have to come from stormwater and agriculture, which have proven to be more difficult to control.

Besides meeting nitrogen and phosphorus goals, state plans also need to offset new growth that will take place between now and 2025.

Beginning this year, states also need to have inspection programs to ensure that urban and agricultural runoff control actions — or best management practices — are periodically inspected to ensure they are in place, maintained and functioning. Runoff control practices that are not “verified” will no longer be counted toward meeting cleanup goals.

The new cleanup goals also do not include additional nutrient reductions that would be required to offset the impacts of the filling of the Conowingo Dam reservoir on the Susquehanna River and climate change — two issues not accounted for when the TMDL was adopted in 2010 but which send millions of additional pounds of nitrogen into the Bay each year. Cleanup actions to address the impacts of climate change and Conowingo will likely stretch beyond the 2025 cleanup goal.

Not everything is getting more difficult, though. The Bay Program is no longer setting a separate goal for sediment — it is now assumed that if enough actions are taken to meet the nutrient goals, the sediment reductions will also be achieved.

Local benefits

While meeting the goals would be challenging and costly, state and federal officials say the benefits will reach well beyond the Bay and into the communities where cleanup efforts are taking place.

For instance, streamside forest buffers can help reduce the risk of floods, improve habitat in streams and reduce energy consumption. Green infrastructure projects that reduce stormwater runoff by installing rain gardens, rain barrels, replacing hard surfaces with “permeable” pavement and other actions can not only reduce pollution and improve streams, but also help generate jobs.

The Bay Program has developed a series of fact sheets to outline the multiple benefits that runoff practices can provide. It’s also updated an online modeling tool, the Chesapeake Assessment Scenario Tool, which allows local governments and others to develop their own pollution reduction scenarios and determine what mix of actions could meet goals, how much they could cost and what types of additional local benefits they could realize.

“We are trying to put all of those things together and make sure that the practices we choose, and the places we choose to implement them, are going to give us the greatest collective benefit at the lowest possible cost,” said James Davis-Martin, the Chesapeake Bay Program Manager with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the co-chair of the Bay Program workgroup that helps evaluate cleanup actions.

“That is way more information than we had last time around.”

Further, he said, it opens the door for states and local governments to engage with new groups aimed at improving fish habitat, or nonprofits engaged in energy conservation, to help meet goals. “It is more opportunities to draw in those willing partners,” Davis-Martin said.

More information

State WIP contacts

Karl Blankenship is editor-at-large of the Bay Journal. You can reach him at kblankenship@bayjournal.com.

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