Federal and state leaders currently steering a nearly 40-year effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay acknowledged this week that they will likely fall short of their longstanding 2025 cleanup deadline, now just a little more than three years away.
During an Oct. 11 meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council, a senior policy-making body for the cleanup effort, some members concentrated on the progress that has been made since the first Chesapeake Bay agreement was penned by the partners in 1983. Others were frank about where things stand.
Attending his first Executive Council meeting since being elected last year, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin stated plainly that his state would not meet its 2025 pollution reduction targets, despite a recent flurry of additional state funding.
“We have a clear commitment to meet those goals. Unfortunately, we won’t meet those by 2025,” he said. “We’ve made considerable progress on many of them. But unfortunately, I inherited a plan that didn’t have Virginia on a path to meet them all on time.”
The council includes the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; 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. Only members from the EPA, Maryland, Virginia, and the commission attended the meeting.
Council members meet annually to discuss the progress of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, with this year’s meeting taking place at EPA headquarters in Washington, DC. Much discussion occurs before and during a private lunch, followed by a public meeting and press conference.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan said that, during their private meeting, the members agreed to ask the council’s Principals’ Staff Committee, which includes senior state and federal officials, to “rethink how we accelerate” momentum “through 2025 and beyond” and to report back by next year’s meeting with a plan for doing so. Regan currently chairs the council and was elected by its members to serve a second term as chair.
“We need a clearer path forward that prioritizes and outlines the next steps for achieving our goals,” Regan said, before repeating for emphasis, “— achieving our goals.”
Confronting the challenge
Staff within the state-federal Bay Program partnership have acknowledged for months that many Chesapeake restoration goals would not be met. Besides the cornerstone effort to reduce nutrient pollution, many other goals tied to 2025 are far behind schedule, such as planting streamside trees, restoring wetlands, increasing urban tree canopy, and restoring brook trout habitat.
Officials until recently were reticent to say as much publicly. But a recent EPA 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 goals for reducing pollution from agriculture. The District of Columbia and West Virginia have met their goals.
Adam Ortiz, the administrator for the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region, said after the meeting that “historical resources” and “unprecedented levels of collaboration in leadership” indicate that acceleration toward the deadline is already underway. He and others pointed to recent significant investments in clean water in Pennsylvania, which sends the most water-fouling nutrients to the Bay.
State lawmakers this year approved using $220 million in federal funds to create a Clean Streams Fund to reduce polluted runoff and, after 12 years of failed attempts, passed a law to reduce fertilizer use on home lawns, golf courses, parks, athletic fields, and other developed lands.
“I can’t overstate what a banner year it was in Pennsylvania,” said Maryland Sen. Sarah Elfreth, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Across the Bay watershed, most of the nutrient reductions achieved since a new cleanup plan was established in 2010 have resulted from wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Now that most of those plants have been upgraded, about 90% of the remaining nutrient reductions must come from agriculture, an area where all the lagging states are off track. Pennsylvania, which has the most farms, is the furthest behind, according to computer model estimates from the Bay Program.
But, given how far behind Pennsylvania and other states remain compared with 2025 deadlines, Ortiz said part of the effort over the next year will include discussing what’s still doable and when.
Despite shortfalls, Executive Council members indicated continued support for the agreement and touted increased investments in clean water.
But, in response to a journalist’s question at the end of the public meeting, Regan acknowledged that “2025 is fleeting in terms of achieving our goal.” He said the task for staff now is to answer the question, “What do we need to do to get back on track?”
Environmental advocates who attended the meeting said they will keep a close eye on that plan as it unfolds over the next year. Many said any changes to the agreement that might alter deadlines or details need to balance the need for both ambition and accountability.
Julie Lawson, chair of the Bay Program’s Citizens Advisory Committee to the Executive Council, told its members that “they’re facing a crisis of credibility” if 2025 deadlines are passed over with little or no consequence. Choose Clean Water Coalition Director Kristin Reilly also stressed the need for “accountability and sufficient investments” in the forthcoming plan.
Hilary Harp Falk, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, added that, while there is a strong agreement in place, backed by scientific modeling and monitoring, “What has been missing to date is accountability.”
The Bay region has previously missed cleanup deadlines set for 2000 and 2010. After missing the 2010 deadline, the EPA and Bay states agreed to an “accountability framework” under which states would submit cleanup plans showing how they would meet new pollution reduction goals. Under that framework, the EPA can take various enforcement actions if states are not making adequate progress.
The Bay Foundation, along with attorneys general of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and the District, sued the EPA in 2020, accusing the agency of shirking its responsibility under the Clean Water Act by letting Pennsylvania and, at the time, New York, fail to adequately identify in their plans how they would meet pollution reduction goals. EPA lawyers argued in a brief that same year that, while the framework allows the agency to take enforcement action, it does not require it to do so. Plaintiffs have until Nov. 11 to respond to the EPA’s motion to dismiss the case.
Other Bay leaders have emphasized the importance of setting pollution goals that balance both achievable and aspirational.
“Sometimes strong goals drive innovation,” Chesapeake Bay Commission Executive Director Ann Swanson said after the meeting. “So we have to have the guts to set the right goal. We must go to the outer edge of doable because doable isn’t enough.”
Swanson, who will retire this year after 35 years of working on Bay issues, appealed directly to the Executive Council members several times during her last presentation.
She pointed out that water quality in the Bay has improved dramatically since the early 1980s, even though, as a whole, it is only about a third of the way to where it needs to be. “In the time that we cut the pollution load by a third, the population grew by half,” she said.
The issue now, she said, is how close the region can get to its goals in the next three years. Pushing for progress up to and through the 2025 deadline, she said, would prove that “if you set a really difficult goal — one that almost seems not doable — you can get damn close. And that’s the challenge now.”
This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.