With its 2025 deadline a little more than three years away, environmental leaders are publicly acknowledging what’s been increasingly obvious for years — that the Chesapeake Bay region will, for the third time, miss a self-imposed cleanup deadline.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently released separate evaluations of states’ cleanup efforts. Both concluded the region is not on track to reduce the amount of water-fouling nutrients that reach the Bay.
The question of what comes next is expected to be taken up by the Chesapeake Executive Council when it meets in Washington, DC, on Oct. 11.
The council, the senior policy-making body for Bay cleanup efforts, is expected to start a yearlong planning process to examine the next steps and new timelines for Bay restoration activities.
The council includes the EPA administrator; the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, and New York; the mayor of the District of Columbia; and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.
It has been widely acknowledged within the state-federal Bay Program partnership for months that many of the Chesapeake restoration goals set for 2025 would not be achieved. However, officials have been reluctant to publicly admit that their cornerstone nutrient pollution efforts would fall short, likely by a wide mark.
“Historically, people hesitated to say that 2025 isn’t going to be met as we envisioned,” said Adam Ortiz, administrator of the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region, at a press briefing. “But we’re interested in keeping it real … the sooner we speak the truth and plan accordingly, the more successful we’ll be.”
Bay Program officials, he said, are now “engaged in that conversation about recalibrating the timeline for restoration.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also acknowledged that the states are not on track with their nutrient reduction goals and that the 2025 goal will be missed.
In a separate briefing, foundation president Hilary Falk said she looked forward to working with the states to establish “appropriate deadlines” but said those should be “measured in years and not decades.”
The region previously missed cleanup deadlines set for 2000 and 2010. When the 2010 deadline was missed, the Bay Program agreed to develop a more detailed regulatory plan. As a result, the EPA in 2010 issued the Bay’s total maximum daily load or “pollution diet.” It assigned specific nutrient reduction goals for each state and major river in the watershed.
The Bay Program then decided that all measures needed to reach those goals should be in place by 2025. To help ensure that progress stayed on track, the states set interim two-year goals, known as milestones. The EPA is responsible for reviewing progress and can take various actions against states if they fall off schedule.
In the early years, states made progress mostly by upgrading wastewater treatment plants and largely postponing the much more difficult task of reducing polluted runoff from farms, cities, and suburbs.
Now, most wastewater treatment plants have been upgraded, and about 90% of the remaining nutrient reductions must come from agriculture, an area where all states are off track. Pennsylvania, which has the most farms, is the furthest behind, according to computer model estimates from the Bay Program.
The EPA’s recent review shows that Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and New York failed to meet the nutrient reduction goals they had set for the 2020–21 milestone period. None were on track to meet their agricultural goals. The District of Columbia and West Virginia have met their goals.
But Ortiz expressed optimism that the recent influx of hundreds of millions of dollars from several federal programs will accelerate pollution reduction actions in coming years.
Ortiz said the funding “represents historic opportunities” and that the EPA’s evaluations of 2020–21 progress “do not quite capture all the momentum generated in the last year.”
The Bay Foundation nutrient reduction analysis reached similar conclusions. “There is a very long way to go,” Falk said. “All jurisdictions are behind in meeting commitments to reduce pollution from stormwater and agriculture. Addressing these challenges is the defining challenge of the current partnership.”
According to Bay Program computer modeling, the region is not even halfway to its goal of reducing nitrogen, the most problematic form of nutrient pollution. States must collectively reduce nitrogen loads to the Bay by 71.8 million pounds annually to meet Bay water quality goals. Through 2021, the region had achieved a 30.3 million-pound reduction.
But that shortfall does not account for roughly 6 million pounds of additional nitrogen reductions needed to offset the impact of the filling of the Conowingo Dam reservoir on the Susquehanna River, which results in more nutrients flowing downstream. EPA and state officials acknowledged this summer that goal wouldn’t be completed by 2025.
Nor does that shortfall include about 5 million pounds of nitrogen reductions needed to offset the impacts of climate change, which were not accounted for when the nutrient reduction goals were set. Greater precipitation and increasingly severe storms wash more nutrients off the land and into waterways.
A proposed update to the Bay Program’s computer model would make the job tougher. The update would require another 5 million pounds of nitrogen reductions to offset the impact of growth in the watershed, including increased fertilizer sales, increased farm livestock populations, development, and other factors.
Senior state and federal officials in late August agreed to put those model changes on hold after the states’ environment and agriculture officials raised concerns about the accuracy of the model data and questioned if model estimates aligned with water quality monitoring.
This article is republished with permission from BayJournal.com.