Over the next year, the Chesapeake Bay Program will reevaluate its cleanup plan for the nation’s largest estuary — and its 2025 deadline — following a decision Tuesday by the group’s executive council.
“We’ve all acknowledged that 2025 is fleeting in terms of achieving our goal,” said Michael S. Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the council’s chairperson. “And so, what we tasked our staff to do is to take a look at: What can we achieve between now and 2025? And what do we need to do to get back on track?”
That review is due before next year’s executive council meeting, Regan said.
The council’s decision comes less than a week after the EPA released two-year milestone reports that showed that of all the bay jurisdictions, only Washington, D.C., and West Virginia were on track to meet their goals in the next three years.
The 2025 plan, approved by the Chesapeake Bay Program in 2014, set in place a “pollution diet,” requiring that the states surrounding the nation’s largest estuary, from New York down to Virginia, take steps to reduce the amount of harmful nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the bay by specific amounts. Previous plans to reduce bay pollution by 2000 and 2010 fell short of their goals.
Both nutrients can feed algae blooms in the bay that consume oxygen in the water and choke out other life, creating what are known as dead zones.
Per the EPA’s recent review, the states are collectively on track to achieve 49% of the plan’s nitrogen reductions and 64% of the phosphorus reductions. But many of the early reductions came from equipment upgrades at wastewater treatment plants, whereas needed reductions in runoff from cities, suburbs and farms have been more difficult to achieve.
But Regan said Tuesday that the group, which includes the governors of all the bay states, remains committed to attempting to meet the original targets.
“The members of this committee have been and remain committed to hitting these targets,” he said. “We did have an honest conversation over lunch today, which is: How do we refine our goals, so that we ensure that they are achievable?”
Hilary Harp Falk, president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the council’s decision in a statement Tuesday, but said “the devil is in the details with what happens next, and we’ll be watching closely.”
“After decades of missed deadlines, the watershed and people who call it home deserve a new plan that addresses challenges like climate change and growth, builds on lessons learned, and accelerates progress,” Falk said in her statement.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican nearing the end of his final term in office, spoke during Tuesday’s meeting about lessons learned in Maryland following serious pollution problems at both of Baltimore’s wastewater treatment plants, built along tributaries to the Chesapeake. In 2021, environmental inspections at the plants turned up critical maintenance issues that had endured for months, resulting in releases of excess amounts of nutrients and bacteria into the waterways.
“This has underscored the importance of making sure that our restoration investments are well-maintained, and continue to perform as designed throughout their lifespan,” he said. “It has also shown the importance of having a trained and professional workforce care for our restoration investments, and the critical nature of head-to-toe compliance checks.”
In a news conference about the milestone reports last week, Adam Ortiz, administrator for the EPA’s Region 3, which includes Maryland and most of the bay states, spoke about the need for officials to admit the 2025 plan is unlikely to be accomplished in time, and make plans for the future. Ortiz is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s principal’s staff committee, which was charged with reevaluating the 2025 bay cleanup plan during Tuesday’s meeting.
Ortiz said the 2025 plan failed to accurately account for the impact of climate change and population growth on the pollution flowing into the bay, and to account for events like sediments filling in behind the Conowingo Dam, inhibiting its ability to continue preventing sediment and the nutrients it carries flowing down the Susquehanna River to the bay.
Environmental groups and state attorneys general have taken issue with the EPA’s enforcement of the pollution reduction requirements, arguing in legal filings that reduction plans from Pennsylvania, which has a high density of agriculture, are inadequate and require greater federal intervention.
The federal agency asked Pennsylvania to resubmit its most recent 2025 plan, and received a new version over the summer, which reflected new funding commitments from the legislature to help reduce agricultural pollution. That plan is still under review, Regan said Tuesday.