It’s been a decade since the region renewed its commitment to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, with regional leaders promising to finish the job by 2025.

Today, the promises made in 2010 have gone the way of many other clean water pledges. The latest available data show that, while progress has been made, the region is not on track to meet its goal, and the pace of action has been slowing.

Chesapeake Bay region faces the possibility of missing yet another cleanup deadline as slow progress on reducing nutrients from agriculture has been further complicated by economic problems caused by COVID-19. Here, Dwight Marshall works the water on Smith Island, MD. Credit: Dave Harp

Worse, that reflects the status of efforts before the coronavirus pandemic further slowed implementation of on-the-ground actions to reduce the runoff that fouls local waterways and the Chesapeake.

Many cleanup projects scheduled for this spring and summer never happened, and state and local governments are anticipating further impacts as they grapple with the anticipated budget impacts of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

For now, though, state officials are publicly committed to meeting Bay cleanup goals.

“We are committed to the 2025 timeframe,” said Ben Grumbles, Maryland secretary of the environment, during a recent meeting of senior state and federal agency officials involved with the Bay. “We are continuing to make real progress despite the last couple of months.”

But, he added, “It is fair to say this is a challenge for all of us.”

Lost tax revenue stemming from springtime shutdowns has left state and local governments facing billions of dollars in shortfalls, though officials say it will be weeks or months before they know exactly how that will affect conservation programs.

A survey by the Bay Journal of two dozen local governments throughout the Chesapeake watershed found that all but four thought it was “highly likely” or “somewhat likely” that their environmental programs would be impacted by the coronavirus, with stormwater programs identified as the area most likely to suffer.

“Projects that had a very aggressive timeline are now in crisis mode to complete.” — Bay Journal survey respondent

Many said on-the-ground projects have been delayed, and most said stormwater inspection and maintenance programs have been affected. “The pandemic has put a delay on implementing all projects that will get us closer to reaching water quality improvement goals,” one respondent said.

Another anticipated their board of supervisors would postpone adopting a new stormwater fee, which in turn would significantly affect their ability to put projects on the ground. “Projects that had a very aggressive timeline are now in crisis mode to complete,” that respondent said.

One local official in northern Virginia noted that local governments there were likely facing a budget shortfall of at least $1 billion. Many have furloughed stormwater staff and put projects on hold.

“A tough discussion needs to be had,” that official said. “And that tough discussion is basically, ‘Are we actually now going to be able to meet the 2025 TMDL given what is occurring?’”

Ann Simonetti, chair of the Local Government Advisory Committee to the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, said that sentiment “absolutely” echoed what she was hearing from local officials in the Harrisburg region. Many suffered reduced staffing and delays caused by remote working.

Managing stormwater from developed areas is a major challenge for communities in the Chesapeake region, which grapple with water-borne pollutants swept into streams, as well as flooding and combined sewage overflows. Credit: Dave Harp

Some projects are on hold at least until next year, she said. That includes a major stormwater project, which a local government put out to bid but was not able to award it because the coronavirus prevented them from meeting with the bidders.

“There will be an additional cost,” Simonetti said. “Everything comes down to a lack of full-time staff and then increased cost.”

But after the region missed cleanup goals set for 2000 and 2010, tensions are running  high as the prospect rises that yet another Bay deadline will be missed. Four states are threatening to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to force two other states — Pennsylvania and New York — to do more. Neither state has completed plans showing how they would meet the 2025 goal.

It’s the greatest level of discord ever seen in a regional cleanup effort that dates to 1983. “The partnership is known for working through very difficult, very passionate and very challenging moments,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represents state legislatures. “And we are in one of those moments right now.”

Here’s a look at where the Bay cleanup stands, how things got to where they are. 

How we got here

The Chesapeake Bay is the nation’s largest, most productive estuary (a place where saltwater and freshwater mix). But scientists have recognized for decades that its water quality was significantly degraded by too many nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — and too much sediment washing in from the surrounding 64,000-square-mile drainage basin.

The sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching underwater grass beds that provide important habitat for fish and crabs, and it smothers oysters, clams and other bottom-dwelling creatures. The nutrients spur algae blooms that, like sediment, block needed sunlight. When the algae die, they are decomposed by bacteria in a process that draws oxygen out of the water, creating a regular summertime “dead zone” off-limits to most aquatic life.

The Chesapeake Bay Program was created in 1983 as a federal-state partnership to restore the Bay. But efforts to reduce nutrient pollution to levels that would restore healthy water conditions have proven elusive.

A “regenerative stormwater conveyance system” in Hopewell, VA, controls stormwater runoff from an adjacent neighborhood before it flows into a local stream and out into the Appomattox River. Credit: Sarah Vogelsong

Although pollution has been reduced, cleanup goals set for 2000 and 2010 were missed by wide marks that left much of the Bay with murky water and expansive dead zones. As a result, the states in the Bay watershed worked with the EPA to develop a more enforceable cleanup plan, known as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, which was released in December 2010. 

Changes under the TMDL

The TMDL, or “pollution diet,” established the maximum load of nutrients and sediment that can reach the Bay and allow it to still meet water quality standards. The total load was then allocated among states and sources contributing to the problem, essentially creating a set of pollution limits across the region.

A unique feature of the Bay TMDL is that the EPA requires each state and the District of Columbia to create detailed watershed implementation plans that describe how they will achieve their share of the nutrient and sediment reductions. The plans must identify the amount of reductions that will come from various sources such as wastewater treatment plants, farms, animal feedlots, stormwater and septic systems.

In the plans, states also must demonstrate they have the programs necessary to achieve those nutrient reductions — including regulations, permits, adequate staffing and enough funding for voluntary cost-share programs.

Ryan Davis of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay inspects the status of a tree growing in a tube shelter on a streamside buffer near Lititz, PA. Streamside buffers are one of the most effective ways to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in waterways. Credit: Ad Crable

To ensure programs stay on track, states must also set two-year milestones (see Two-Year Milestones: Mapping the way to clean water) detailing the amount of nutrient and sediment reductions that will be achieved during that time, as well as changes in programs (such as more funding or regulations) needed to achieve those goals.

If states are coming up short, the EPA can take a variety of actions. For instance:

  • It could force greater nutrient reductions from regulated sources, such as wastewater treatment plants.
  • It could establish tougher regulatory programs for stormwater runoff and large animal feedlots, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.
  • It could deny permits for new or expanding sources of nutrient and sediment discharges, unless states could show how those loads would be offset by other reductions. This could affect wastewater or industrial discharges, some construction permits, animal feedlots and other permitted sources.
  • It could withhold some funds a state receives through Clean Water Act grants or target the grant to a specific area, action or facility within a state.

Review & revisions

In 2017–19, the region reviewed the cleanup work that had taken place since 2010. By the time of that “midpoint assessment,” states were to have achieved 60% of their required nutrient reductions.

Only Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia fully met the 2017 deadline. Pennsylvania — the largest contributor of nutrients to the Chesapeake, although it does not physically touch the Bay — fell far short of its goals.

Generally, states were able to make significant progress in reducing nutrient discharges from wastewater treatment plants. But they had limited success in reducing nutrient-laden runoff from agriculture and developed lands. Typically, the greater proportion of nutrients originating from those sources, the less progress a state made.

Indeed, since 2010, 85% of the reductions in nitrogen — which has proven to be the most difficult nutrient to control — have come from upgrading wastewater treatment plants. Now, there are few plants left that need upgrades.

Last year, the states released new watershed implementation plans to show how they would finish the job of meeting their goals by 2025.

From now to the end of 2025, when all of the cleanup actions are to be in place, state plans call for about 80% of the remaining nitrogen reductions to come from agriculture and 5% from stormwater. But progress in both of these areas has proven difficult.

Nutrient pollution from farmland continues to be the largest form of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. All states in the Bay watershed face significant challenges in reaching pollution reduction goals by 2025. Credit: Dave Harp

Meeting those goals would require state agencies, local governments and conservation districts to step up implementation of runoff controls to rates they have never achieved in the past.

Shortfalls & discord

None of the updated watershed implementation plans provide clarity on how states will increase funding for cost-share programs or technical support that would enable the massive ramp up needed to meet Bay restoration goals.

In public comments submitted on the plans, many local governments and conservation districts expressed skepticism that there would be adequate funding or staffing to achieve the goals, with several flatly stating that the goals could not be achieved by 2025.

Further, plans submitted by Pennsylvania and New York failed to show how either state would achieve their nutrient reduction goals. Pennsylvania’s shortfall is so large that, by itself, it would guarantee that the region as a whole could not achieve its 2025 goal to clean the Bay. It also identified a funding shortfall of $324 million a year.

In its review of the plans, the EPA said all jurisdictions — except the District of Columbia and West Virginia, which met their goals — should provide more detailed information about how they will achieve their aggressive rates of implementation.

The agency also faulted Pennsylvania and New York for failing to submit plans that fully achieved their nitrogen goals — Pennsylvania’s was about 25% short, and New York missed by about a third. But the EPA did not call for any new regulatory action against them.

That angered other states.

In May, the attorneys general for Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia joined with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an Annapolis-based environmental group, and announced their intent to sue the EPA for failing to force Pennsylvania and New York to do more. One Maryland local government, Anne Arundel County, joined the action. 

Progress continues to stall

Meanwhile, an EPA analysis released in July raised new doubts about cleanup progress. Figures detailing state efforts for the 2018–19 milestone period found that most missed the pollution control goals they had set for themselves.

Pennsylvania missed its goals for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Virginia missed its goals for nitrogen and phosphorus. New York missed its goal for nitrogen and sediment; Delaware missed its goal for nitrogen; and Maryland missed its goal for nitrogen and phosphorus;

Only the District of Columbia and West Virginia met their goals for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

That puts more pressure on states to get back on track within the next few years.

But it will be a tall order, in large part because of continuing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. State and federal officials this spring signaled their intent to stick with the two-year milestone goals they submitted before the pandemic — but left open the possibility they could be revisited later this year.

Many pollution control actions were delayed while state and county governments and conservation districts struggled with staffing cuts and curtailed field work.

“In our county conservation districts, we’ve seen some furloughs and some reduced capacity,” said Pat McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “We obviously lost at least part of the construction season.”

It’s an indication of the tough road that remains ahead. Since the TMDL was launched, improvements in Chesapeake Bay water quality have been made — albeit slowly. Underwater grass beds have been bouncing back, and oxygen levels have improved somewhat.

But the last word about whether the pace of that progress markedly changes in coming years may be determined as much by the persistence of the coronavirus as by the will of political leaders.

This article originally appeared on on September 9, 2020, and is republished with permission.

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