PA plan admits it falls short of goal; NY hints it may not follow theirs; ag and stormwater runoff bedevil almost all jurisdictions

Karl Blankenship,

In April, states submitted yet another round of roadmaps outlining how they intend to reach Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals by 2025. But, 36 years after the region committed to cleaning up the nation’s largest estuary, the latest draft plans still won’t get them over the finish line.

That’s largely because of Pennsylvania, which submitted a draft plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that falls far short of its cleanup goal. New York submitted a plan, but suggested it did not intend to fully implement it.

Other states drafted plans that meet their goals on paper. But in many cases, they require a nearly unprecedented increase in the amount of on-the-ground actions that reduce polluted runoff from farms and developed lands.

The EPA is reviewing the drafts to determine whether they meet pollution goals for each state and whether states have adequate funding, staffing and programs to implement them.

The agency has the ability to take action against states that fall behind on their goals, and pressure is mounting for Pennsylvania to face consequences if it continues to come up short.

The region has been working to clean up the Bay since 1983 and set its first voluntary cleanup goal in 1987. It then repeatedly established and fell short of goals to control nitrogen and phosphorus, two nutrients that spur algae blooms in the Bay.

The blooms block sunlight, killing underwater grass beds — one of the Bay’s most important habitats for juvenile crabs, fish and waterfowl. When the algae die, they draw oxygen from the water, leading to oxygen-starved dead zones that put large areas of the Bay off-limits for everything from fish to bottom-dwelling worms.

After earlier goals were missed, the EPA imposed a regulatory plan, called the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or “pollution diet,” in 2010. It established enforceable limits on the amount of nutrients entering the Bay from each state and major river, and it requires all actions needed for meeting those goals to be in place by 2025.

States wrote plans and have been implementing them with varying amounts of success. They have met phosphorus goals ahead of schedule, but efforts to control nitrogen — long the bigger challenge — are far off track. The new “watershed implementation plans” being completed this year are supposed to show how states will complete the job on schedule.

States submitted their drafts to the EPA April 12, and they are available for public comment through June 7. The plans are to be finalized by Aug. 9.

More effort & more costs

For some, writing the latest plan was easy. West Virginia and the District of Columbia have already met their goals, though both have committed to do more in coming years.

Other plans detail how states would meet the 2025 goals but require significantly more effort and funding to reduce nutrient-laden runoff from farmland — the largest source of nutrients  — as well as stormwater from urban and suburban roads.

Maryland counts on doing three times as much to control nutrients from its farms between now and 2025 than it has accomplished since 2010. Delaware calls for planting cover crops on “every eligible acre,” and Virginia calls for a huge acceleration of its various programs aimed at keeping livestock out of streams.

Some states included cost estimates for their plans; others did not. But the plans show that full implementation would cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The biggest problems lie on the Susquehanna River, which supplies half of the freshwater — and nearly half of the nitrogen — to the Bay.

New York, which lies hundreds of miles upstream and has long been a reluctant participant in the Bay restoration effort, has made little progress since the pollution diet went into effect. Rather than accelerating its work, the state’s new plan commits to maintaining “a consistent level of implementation” on its farmland, which is by far its largest source of nutrients, saying such efforts are “realistic.” It is counting on significant farmland losses in its portion of the watershed, with an associated reduction in fertilizer applications, to help meet its goal.

New York submitted an alternate plan that would achieve the Bay goals, but said it lacks the funding and staffing to implement it.

PA still far behind

The larger shortfall, by far, is in Pennsylvania. Nutrient reduction has lagged there for years, and the Keystone State now needs to accomplish three quarters of the remaining reductions needed in the entire Bay watershed. Pennsylvania does not touch the Chesapeake, but nearly half of the state drains into the Susquehanna, while a small portion goes into the Potomac River, the Bay’s second largest tributary.

Under the pollution diet, the state needs to slash annual nitrogen discharges to the Bay by 39.5 million pounds a year, but through the end of 2017 — the most recent figures publicly available — the state had reduced its load by just 5.4 million pounds, according to the state-federal Bay Program.

Although its draft plan says the state “is committed to having all practices and controls in place by 2025” to meet the Bay goals, the submitted document only shows how it would achieve two-thirds of its needed reduction, leaving a gap of more than 11 million pounds. That’s nearly a quarter of the nitrogen reductions needed for the entire Bay watershed from now through 2025. (The state would achieve its phosphorus goal, though.)

Even with that shortfall, the plan would require Pennsylvania to increase funding for pollution reduction efforts by $257 million a year — more than doubling what the state currently spends.

Because Pennsylvania is so far behind in its Bay commitments, the EPA last year singled it out for increased oversight and asked for more evidence to demonstrate that it will have the programs, funding and policies needed to implement its plan. The agency also said it expected “technical details,” including a list of all nutrient control actions Pennsylvania needs to meet its goals. The draft failed to do that and provides little detail about how the state would cover the shortfall.

In its warning last year, the EPA said that if Pennsylvania did not submit a satisfactory plan, it could face a variety of consequences. Those could include forcing wastewater treatment plants to make further costly upgrades, bringing more animal feedlots under the federal regulatory umbrella, redirecting how EPA grant funds are spent or other actions.

An agency spokesman declined to comment on Pennsylvania’s plan, saying that the agency was reviewing drafts from all of the states and would release its assessments in early June.

EPA urged to act

Environmental groups and representatives from other jurisdictions have called on the agency to apply more pressure on Pennsylvania. Maryland’s draft plan emphasized that meeting Bay goals “will require full commitment from upstream states, like Pennsylvania and New York” and upon the EPA “holding all jurisdictions accountable.”

An Amish farmer lays down fertilizer in Lancaster County, PA. The state has more farms — 33,000 — than other states in the region, and most are small, making both oversight and outreach a struggle. (Ad Crable)

Deborah Klenotic, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, acknowledged that the plan only outlined actions that achieved two-thirds of the nitrogen goal but said the state “will meet its obligations through additional measures.”

“A key focus … is increased tracking of nitrogen reductions from sources not yet documented,” she said.

The plan said many conservation measures that farmers and others implemented on their own — without public funding — have not been accounted for in meeting Bay goals. It calls for increased efforts to track those actions, as well as other measures for which it says the state has not received full credit.

Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, expressed disappointment in Pennsylvania’s plan. “We’ve got to fix it and fund it,” he said.

Campbell praised the state’s effort to involve counties, farmers and other stakeholders in the plan’s development, saying “the process got a lot of interest, energy and even enthusiasm” and that the state would have been further along if such an outreach effort had begun years ago.

But, he added, “the bottom line is it’s got to add up.”

Securing funding from the state’s General Assembly has long been a challenge. According to the plan, the state and counties in the Bay watershed currently spend about $229 million a year on restoration efforts. But that spending needs to be ramped up to $485 million a year.

The shortfalls identified in the report are not new. A Pennsylvania “reboot” strategy released three years ago intending to jump-start the state’s Bay obligations also identified severe staffing shortages and a funding shortfall.

Campbell said that the new plan, and the potential for EPA action, could finally spur the state’s lawmakers to provide more resources for the job. “This is sort of a stark reminder, and maybe even a wake-up call, as to the need,” he said.

Keystone State’s tough task

Pennsylvania has always faced a more difficult challenge in reducing nutrient pollution than most other states in the watershed.

Maryland and Virginia have made recent progress by upgrading wastewater treatment plants, but only about a tenth of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen comes from that sector.

Most of its nutrients come from agriculture and stormwater runoff — sectors that all of the states have struggled to control.

It has more farms — 33,000 — than other states in the region, and most are small, making both oversight and outreach a struggle. Likewise, much of the stormwater pollution comes from small rural communities. Three-fourths of Pennsylvania’s developed lands are outside areas covered by state and federal stormwater permits, meaning there is little effective regulatory control.

“Compared to the other states in the watershed, the scale of the nonpoint source challenges in Pennsylvania is one of the most significant factors that has impacted past progress and will impact future success,” the state’s draft plan says.

Despite its shortfall, the state’s draft plan acknowledges the urgency to begin demonstrating cleanup progress or face potential EPA action. It implores local governments and others to “demonstrate progress,” such adopting policies or ordinances, even if on-the-ground action is not immediately possible.

The plan also emphasizes that not only the Bay, but the state’s own rivers, streams and public drinking water supplies are at risk and would benefit from the cleanup actions.

If the state doesn’t ramp up its efforts, some — including Maryland lawmakers — have suggested forcing action through lawsuits. In the draft plan, Pennsylvania tacitly acknowledges that patience among others involved in the Bay restoration effort is wearing thin and that it “could face opposition from other states and environmental organizations” if it does not do more.

Links to the plans, and instructions for commenting, can be found at the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load website. Visit and click on “Read the Draft WIPs.”

David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...