By Karl Blankenship, BayJournal.com
The draft Bay cleanup plans drawn up by watershed states fall short of ensuring the region will finally achieve its longstanding goal of delivering a healthy Chesapeake by 2025, federal officials have concluded.
Reviews by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirm that drafts submitted by two states, Pennsylvania and New York, fail to achieve nutrient reduction goals set for those jurisdictions. That would ensure the region’s overall goal would be missed unless the shortfall is addressed in final plans due in August.
But even in states where plans appeared to achieve their goals on paper, the EPA said the drafts lacked details showing they had adequate funding, programs, regulations — and in some cases legislation — to ensure there would be enough on-the-ground action to reach the Bay’s clean water goals.
Those concerns were echoed by a variety of stakeholder groups. The overriding concern is money — or lack of it. Most state plans did not offer detailed cost estimates for fulfilling their plans, or say where they would get needed money.
Many local governments and farm groups are worried that they could be left bearing the brunt of costs that would easily run into the billions of dollars over the next six years to curb farm runoff, control urban stormwater and complete wastewater treatment plant upgrades.
The concerns came in response to the draft watershed implementation plans submitted to the EPA in April by six states and the District of Columbia. The plans, or WIPS for short, are supposed to spell out how states would achieve by 2025 the remaining nitrogen and phosphorus reductions for each jurisdiction that were established under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, which was set by the EPA in 2010.
Although the region has made progress, it is behind schedule for controlling nitrogen, the primary nutrient responsible for algae blooms that cloud the Bay’s water and fuel its oxygen-starved dead zones. The WIPs lay out actions needed to finish the job, plus the programs and funding required to get there.
The EPA released its evaluations of the plans in June while dozens of local governments, environmental groups and others also submitted comments. States must complete final plans in August.
If the EPA concludes the final plans do not provide confidence that states will reach their goals, it can take a variety of actions, including increasing oversight, extending its regulatory authority over more entities and requiring more pollution reductions from dischargers with permits, such as wastewater treatment plants.
Draft plans from Pennsylvania, which accounts for most of the region’s nutrient shortfall, as well as the plan from New York failed to reach their goals by substantial margins. Two jurisdictions, the District of Columbia and West Virginia, have already met their goals.
In most of the plans, states fall short of achieving stormwater goals, which are particularly costly, and make up for that with reductions from wastewater plants or agricultural controls.
Some criticize that approach. By transferring responsibilities to others, noted Choose Clean Water, a coalition of conservation groups from around the region, states are “failing to put the programs and resources in place and to ask the stormwater sector to reduce its fair share.”
Taken as a whole, the biggest hurdle will be ramping up programs for agriculture, the largest source of nutrients to the Bay. About 85% of the nitrogen reductions achieved since the TMDL went into place came from upgrades to wastewater plants, but that job is nearly complete.
Under the draft plans, about 85% of the reductions would now come from agriculture, a sector where progress has been difficult. State programs lack adequate funding to pay for needed conservation measures, critics say, and agencies lack enough technical staffing to assist farmers.
Financial problems are not limited to government agencies. The WIPs are coming at a time when many farmers are hard-hit financially from the impact of last year’s harvest-reducing rains, tariffs and low commodity prices.
Even if state programs were staffed and funded, farmers in many cases would not have the money to implement practices that require cost-share, many said.
“The agricultural economy is at its lowest point since the agricultural depression in the early 1980s,” said the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts. “Conservation is not free, and even with cost-share, private farmer dollars are required to implement conservation practices.”
Here are some highlights of comments on state plans.
- 2009 Load: 112.71 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 107.36 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 73.18 million pounds
- 2009 Load: 4.46 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 3.85 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 3.04 million pounds
The state’s draft WIP achieves only 64% of its nitrogen reductions needed to meet its 2025 goal, according to the EPA’s review, and 76% of its phosphorus goal — the only state to miss the mark for that nutrient.
The EPA review said Pennsylvania’s plan lacked details showing how it would address shortfalls in funding and staff. The federal agency also questioned the lack of timelines for making needed regulatory and legislative changes.
In some cases, the state plan calls for more than a tenfold increase in the installation of certain runoff control practices, but says little about how that would happen.
The EPA said it understood that Pennsylvania has “unique challenges.” The state is the largest contributor of nutrients to the Bay, and those pollutants mostly come from small farms and small municipalities where controlling them is difficult.
The EPA and others lauded the state for striving to involve local governments and stakeholders in developing county-specific cleanup plans. But the first four completed plans fell short of their goals, the agency said, and the WIP did not show how it would make up for those shortfalls.
The EPA also faulted the sparse explanation of how the state would curtail runoff from developed lands. Pennsylvania has more stormwater than any other state in the watershed, and 75% of it comes from areas too sparsely populated to be covered by existing regulatory programs.
Pennsylvania’s draft plan acknowledged an annual funding shortfall of $257 million and outlined various potential funding sources to fill that gap. But the plan didn’t identify which are being pursued or pledge to establish any dedicated funding source, the EPA said.
Others also pressed for increased state funding. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said some existing state programs “are so underfunded and understaffed that they essentially fail to function.” Spending on environmental programs in Pennsylvania has been steadily declining for more than a decade, and CBF said “the trend of disinvestment in resource agencies must be reversed.”
Beyond more funding, CBF said the state needs to impose new regulations and laws to limit the application of manure during the winter, exclude animals from streams and restrict lawn applications of fertilizer.
Local governments worried they would be on the hook for covering financial shortfalls, especially for stormwater.
The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors questioned “the affordability of this level of spending,” and suggested the plan’s completion deadlines were unrealistic.
York County, one of four that participated in developing initial cleanup plans, flatly stated that the 2025 deadline “will not be met.”
None of the four pilot counties that developed plans met their goal. Even with a shortfall, York County called its plan a “stretch” and said it would require new programs, policies and funding from the state — specifics which it said were lacking in the draft WIP.
The environmental group PennFuture said it would be a “significant feat” for the remaining 39 counties to write and implement plans in the next five years. It said the WIP failed to detail how the state would address gaps in the county plans, or even ensure that they were being written or carried out.
- 2009 Load: 57.51 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 52.75 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 45.78 million pounds
- 2009 Load: 4.05 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 3.61 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 3.68 million pounds
The EPA said Maryland’s plan met its nutrient reduction goals but lacked important details.
In particular, the state needed to offer more information about how it would install new agricultural runoff control measures which, in many cases, must be done at significantly higher rates. The EPA said the draft is unclear whether the state has adequate funding in place to support those efforts, or to provide the necessary increased technical assistance to farmers.
The agency also said the plan lacked detail about how Maryland would accelerate stormwater controls by 2025.
Several environmental groups also described the state’s plan as “vague,” especially when it comes to stormwater and agriculture.
The Choose Clean Water coalition faulted Maryland for not including county-level detail for achieving nutrient reduction goals. It noted that nitrogen farm runoff has been increasing in several counties in recent years, but the WIP failed to explain how those trends would be reversed.
In a comment echoed by others, the Washington County Soil Conservation District said meeting goals was contingent on adequate state funding, adding that it cannot meet plan expectations “if we are not given additional manpower for the work.”
Many in the agricultural community also called for greater investments in technical assistance. “Maryland must provide long-term stability of technical assistance positions — not just grant-based jobs,” commented the Delmarva Poultry Industry.
The Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts said another 30 planners are needed statewide to write farm conservation plans — a staffing increase of more than a quarter — as well as more engineers to design manure storage and runoff control structures. In some counties, as many as half of the requests for technical positions went unfilled in 2018, it said.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation urged the state to begin putting more emphasis on buffers, pasture management, wetland restoration and other systems that help build natural filters on the landscape. But the state’s buffer goal, CBF said, is even less than that proposed by county conservation districts.
Although local engagement was supposed to be an important part of WIP development, many questioned whether that took place. The Maryland Municipal Stormwater Association said many local governments likely disagree that they were actively engaged, and that the state never gave local governments the chance to comment on assumptions the state incorporated into its WIP.
- 2009 Load: 68.1 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 58.16 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 55.73 million pounds
- 2009 Load: 6.99 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 6.16 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 6.19 million pounds
The EPA said the state plan achieves nutrient goals statewide as well as in its major river basins, except for on the Eastern Shore, which would not meet the nitrogen goal.
The EPA said the state should provide more details about how it would significantly increase implementation rates for many agricultural controls such as nutrient management, forest buffers and livestock exclusion. It also asked the state to provide more information about how it would greatly expand its poultry litter transport program, from 6,000 to 89,000 tons of transported litter each year.
In addition, the EPA asked for more information about how Virginia would address stormwater runoff in rural areas not covered by existing permits.
Virginia counts on achieving additional reductions from wastewater treatment plants to cover stormwater pollution, but the EPA said the state needed to provide more detail about those additional reductions and when they would be made.
A number of communities expressed concern that the state said it could seek further wastewater reductions from some plants, noting that sector had already far exceeded its goal. In a comment reflected by others, the Stafford County Board of Supervisors called the proposal “an inefficient approach that will have negative impacts on local sewer rates.”
Many also said that the state needs to provide more detail, especially when it comes to how it would pay for ramped-up programs.
In the last 15 years, 60% of the state’s Bay-related spending has gone for wastewater treatment plant upgrades, noted the Choose Clean Water coalition. With a greater proportion of future reductions expected to come from agriculture and stormwater, the state needs “adequate and consistent” funding for those sectors to be successful, the coalition said.
CBF estimated that the state’s agricultural cost-share programs need about $100 million a year but typically get less than one-third of that.
“Stabilization of funding should help improve performance of all restoration programs,” the environmental group said.
- 2009 Load: 14.51 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 14.28 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 11.53 million pounds
- 2009 Load: 737,000 pounds
- 2018 Load: 629,000 pounds
- 2025 Target: 587,000 pounds
New York submitted a plan that achieved only 61% of its needed nitrogen reductions by 2025, the EPA said. Most of the shortfall comes from its agricultural sector. The state proposed to continue existing programs at current levels of funding and staffing rather than accelerate those efforts or launch new initiatives.
The EPA said the state needs to provide a more detailed strategy — and a commitment to implement it — to fill its nitrogen gap. It noted the state often has low goals for important programs. The state calls for having nutrient management plans for less than 10% of available farm acres, the EPA noted, pointing out that such plans “are typically an essential management element” for making decisions about manure application on farmland.
The state’s draft plan calls for a 30–35% reduction in stormwater from developed lands, but the EPA said it provides little information about how those reductions would be achieved and whether programs have adequate staffing.
The agency also said the state should consider making further nutrient reductions at its wastewater treatment plants to compensate for the lack of adequate progress in its agricultural sector.
The Choose Clean Water coalition faulted the state for its disregard of the 2025 goal. While meeting the agricultural goals would require a “massive increase in capital, technical staff capacity and landowner participation,” the coalition added that “we argue that there needs to be a discussion on how these barriers could be overcome.”
- 2009 Load: 7.25 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 6.66 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 4.55 million pounds
- 2009 Load: 140,000 pounds
- 2018 Load: 118,000 pounds
- 2025 Target: 108,000 pounds
The EPA’s review found that the state’s plan would achieve the nutrient and sediment reduction goals but cautioned that the plan often lacked needed detail to assure those goals could be reached.
For instance, the state plan calls for “enrolling every eligible acre” in cover crop programs but failed to demonstrate that it had funding to achieve such a goal. The EPA review noted that the plan calls for planting more grass and forest buffers. But the state did not explain how that would happen, and the state historically has been largely ineffective in getting farmers to plant buffers.
The state also needs to include a strategy and timeline to address the backlog of cost-share applications for animal waste management systems, the EPA said.
It also said the state needed a long-term strategy to address its small wastewater plants, which will be challenged by increased growth in Delaware’s part of the watershed.
The Choose Clean Water coalition said that the state needs to establish a dedicated source of funding to support water quality improvements. “State agencies charged with implementing the WIP are understaffed and underfunded,” it said. “Similarly, local county agencies need additional staff and resources dedicated to WIP implementation.”
- 2009 Load: 8.06 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 7.72 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 8.22 million pounds
- 2009 Load: 624,000 pounds
- 2018 Load: 429,000 pounds
- 2025 Target: 432,000 pounds
The state has achieved its overall 2025 goals, and its plan will continue to meet the state’s nutrient reduction goals for the Potomac River, but the EPA’s review said it falls short of the goals for the small portion of the state that falls in the James River basin.
To ensure the state maintains its progress, the EPA called on it to provide more details about how it would accelerate nitrogen reductions in its agricultural sector, including new programs, incentives and funding to increase implementation of high-priority practices such as prescribed grazing, conservation tillage and the development of soil conservation plans.
The agency noted that the plan calls for increasing stream fencing and forest buffer installation 40% by 2025, even though implementation has been essentially steady in recent years. It did not explain how this increase will happen.
District of Columbia
- 2009 Load: 2.76 million pounds
- 2018 Load: 1.62 million pounds
- 2025 Target: 2.42 million pounds
- 2009 Load: 72,272 pounds
- 2018 Load: 58,000 pounds
- 2025 Target: 130,000 pounds
The District has achieved its goals, and its draft plan would continue to meet them through 2025.
The EPA had relatively few comments on DC’s plans, noting that the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant is projected to exceed nutrient goals for 2025 and beyond. Meanwhile, the replumbing of the district’s combined sewage overflow system will treat 96 % of that. But a third of the district’s land is owned by various federal agencies, and the EPA said the district needed to better coordinate with those agencies to report on runoff control practices on those lands.