Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What’s in the Final Watershed Implementation Plan for Virginia?

After reviewing the September 2010 draft of the Watershed Implementation Plan, WIP, from Virginia the US EPA detailed a series of regulatory threats or as the EPA preferred to call them “back stop” measures for Virginia. These threats and the understanding that Virginia was better off implementing their own plan spurred the Commonwealth to develop a more aggressive WIP that meets the TMDL mandated by the EPA despite protests about the costs. The revised WIP for Virginia was submitted to the EPA on November 29th and appears to address many of the areas of concern, but does not target agriculture as aggressively as the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay NGOs seem to have been pushing for.

In the revised WIP Virginia commits to significant additional pollution reductions from wastewater treatment plants in the James River basin. The existing limits on total nitrogen and total phosphorus are reduced by an additional 1.6 million pounds of nitrogen and 200,000 pound reduction in phosphorus in the James River prior to 2017 and an additional reduction of 1.0 million pounds of nitrogen and 250,000 pound reduction in phosphorus in the James River post-2017. These nitrogen and phosphorus reductions will be obtained by upgrading wastewater treatment plants. Virginia has committed to obtain a total reduction of 6 million pounds of nitrogen pollution from wastewater treatment plants in the WIP at this point; this does include planned upgrades that are currently underway in the Commonwealth.

The revised WIP also reduces the rate of growth in on-site sewage disposal systems, or septic systems. The intension is to raise the costs to operate a septic system through regulation which would make clustered systems or community systems more competitive and raise the overall cost of building and maintaining homes. The cost of housing would increase in the area in response to these requirements. In addition the revised WIP proposes to require the offset of new system loads through an expansion of the Nutrient Credit Exchange Program. The Commonwealth intends to implement amendments to Virginia Department of Health regulations for alternative systems which are currently a little bit in limbo because of the temporary emergency regulations that the department of health has done little to enforce in much of the Commonwealth. The proposed amendments require a minimum 50% reduction in delivered nitrogen for all new small alternative onsite systems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed resulting in an effective delivered load to the edge of the project boundary of 4.5 lbs TN/person/year. All large alternative onsite systems will have to demonstrate compliance with <3 mg/l total nitrogen at the project boundary.

The revised WIP states legislative and regulatory changes will be considered to require all new and replacement septic systems within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to utilize one of the nitrogen reducing technologies. The WIP states that DEQ will seek legislative changes necessary to establish tax credits for upgrade/replacement of existing conventional systems with nitrogen reducing systems. In addition, they will seek legislative changes to establish 5 year pump-out requirements for all septic tanks in Chesapeake Bay watershed not just Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act areas.

For agricultural operations the revised WIP will require the implementation of resource management plans on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest buffers between cropland and perennial surface waters; stream exclusion of livestock over time; and implemented nutrient management plans. The Commonwealth will provide cost-share funding to achieve implementation of these best practices through the soil and water conservation districts. The WIP calls for farms to implement "resource management plans" to reduce pollution but does not mandate what those plans should include and requires them only if adequate funding is available through the cost share programs. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation objects to the seemingly soft requirement of this provision. If the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is correct that 30% of the pollution loads in the Chesapeake Bay are from farming practices, the best money spent could be to implement agricultural nutrient management plans.

Allocations for newly developed land will be set at a level that results in no increase above allowable 2025 average nutrient loads per acre from previous land uses; unless offsets are obtained. This in effect is a limitation on or added cost to development. Many of these provisions seem intended to slow population growth, because utilization of increased technology and knowledge on how to control the nutrient and sediment pollution has to some extent been overwhelmed by continued population growth in the area.

To attack other problems of suburbia, and the ever increasing suburban sprall in the region, the revised WIP suggests restrictions for application of non-agricultural fertilizers and voluntary reporting from “for-hire” applicators such as lawn service companies. In addition to controls suggested on do it yourself lawn fertilization. Golf courses will be required to implement nutrient management plans.

The revised WIP requires that Virginia’s Stormwater Management Regulations (currently under revision) will require redevelopments to meet reductions in nutrient and sediment loads, and to prevent nutrient pollution and sediment load increases from new development. In the future all new development appear to be required to be almost sediment and nutrient pollution free. The Commonwealth will reduce pollution from stormwater running off urban streets and parking lots by mandating reductions in state permits for large city stormwater systems. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation stormwater runoff remains the only source of water pollution in Virginia that continues to increase and must be aggressively addressed if restoration of the Bay is to succeed. It seems likely that the increase in nutrient pollution and sediment pollution from stormwater systems is partially a reflection of the expansion of suburban development out into Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties and the increasing population in these areas.

It remains to be seen if these revisions to the WIP will be adequate to satisfy the federal regulators and how Virginia plans to pay for these estimated $7 billion in pollution control measures in the next six years.

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