The first Bay Journal article (2018-10-15) in a special series looking at the Chesapeake Bay reported that while progress has been made under the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), it appears likely that our region fail to achieve the final 2025 pollution reduction targets. The article stated that while our region is on track to meet its phosphorus and sediment reduction targets, nitrogen reduction is only at 30 percent of its final goal.
The article stated that most of the current reductions have come from upgrading wastewater treatment plants leaving most of the remaining reductions to come from stormwater runoff and agriculture. (Nitrogen generated from septic systems must also be reduced but the total amount of nitrogen pollution generated by septic systems is much less than what is generated by the stormwater and agriculture sectors.) At the current rate of 2.6 million pounds of nitrogen reduction (less than 1 percent per year), it will take another 25 years to meet the Bay’s nitrogen reduction target.
From the article:
“[The Bay TMDL] didn’t create this monumental acceleration in implementation that we would have liked to have seen,” said Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, though she added that progress would likely have been even less without the new cleanup plan. …
“In the next couple of years, progress is really going to start to slip unless there are some big changes in funding levels and improvements in programs,” said Jeff Corbin, the EPA’s former “Bay czar” who is now with an environmental restoration firm. “It gets harder and harder every day that we get closer to 2025.”
Some, including Corbin, even worry that the 35-year-old state-federal Bay Program partnership could disintegrate into lawsuits that pit states against one another if progress continues to falter.
The article recounted the history of the Bay TMDL from its 2010 unveiling through its subsequent litigation challenges (which failed) and the restoration progress made to date. While the United States Environmental Protection Agency had previously applied TMDLs to many failing bodies of water, the Bay TMDL was unique in that it applied to an entire watershed. In terms of nitrogen reduction, nearly 87 percent has come from wastewater treatment plant upgrades, which as a whole have already reached their 2025 goal. But even in the wastewater sector, there could be a challenge in maintaining those reductions as population growth increases in the region.
The article also discussed the challenges states are facing in meeting their stormwater and agricultural reduction goals. Agriculture is still the largest generator of nutrients for the Bay, including about 48 percent of the Bay’s nitrogen pollution. The article described actions the Bay states have taken to address agricultural and stormwater pollution.
Pennsylvania remains a key problem as it is the state with the greatest nutrient reduction shortfall while New York is the only state where wastewater pollution is increasing.
As the Bay TMDL enters its third and final phase to meet the 2025 goals, EPA is requiring states to develop local goals. (Maryland has had local government requirements since the start of the Bay TMDL.)
The article discussed whether EPA needed to more aggressively enforce the Bay TMDL. To date, EPA has not used many of the enforcement “backstops” that are available, including withholding of federal funding or taking control of a state’s environmental approval process.
There is also the possibility of Bay states entering into litigation against one another for failure to reach pollution reduction goals. Maryland has been critical of Pennsylvania’s lack of progress and some Maryland legislators have mentioned the possibility of litigation.
The article concluded that while the Bay TMDL goals may not be reached by 2025, especially given the funding and implementation efforts that would be needed, the TMDL is continuing to drive progress forward. Ongoing challenges remain, such as addressing the Conowingo Dam, climate change, and growth. However, the Bay TMDL has led to improvements in the health and water quality levels of the Bay. Given more time, those goals can ultimately be reached.