Last Friday, January 6th 2012 I attended the Potomac Watershed Roundtable meeting in Warrenton, VA. The Potomac Watershed Roundtable is a regional forum open to Virginia citizens, community groups and local governments to promote collaboration and cooperation on improving and maintaining water quality of the Potomac Watershed. In recent years this has become about the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) mandated by the EPA to the six Chesapeake Bay Watershed states (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and the District of the Columbia. The meeting’s first speaker was Jeff Corbin, Senior Advisor to the EPA Administrator for the Chesapeake Bay.
The TMDL addresses only pollution from excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. The TMDL does not address toxic, carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors that may be present in the Watershed. The excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create “dead zones” where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater Bay grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom. The result is fish kills and murky water that threaten the aquatic industry and recreational use of the bay.
The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limit for the six states and Washington DC of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year which is a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 %t reduction in sediment from the current levels. The pollution limits are then partitioned to the various jurisdictions and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay modeling tools and monitoring data. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL and the Watershed Implementation Plans (WIP) Phase I and II are designed to ensure that all pollution control measures needed to fully restore the Bay and its tidal rivers are in place by 2025, with at least 60 % of the actions completed by 2017. While it will take years after 2025 for the Bay and its tributaries to fully heal, EPA expects that once the required best management practices (BMPs) are in place there will be gradual and continued improvement in water quality as BMPs reduce the nutrient and sediment run off and better control storm water so that the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem can heal itself.
Since 1985 the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded. Phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment are released to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed by waste water treatment plants that service the millions of residents of the watershed, and by rainwater that percolates to the groundwater carrying excess nitrogen from septic and washes soil, nitrogen, and phosphorus into storm water and ultimately reaches the rivers, streams and bodies of water that make up the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Though control of nutrient contamination has improved in all areas of the region, the massive growth of the population and expansion of developed land since 1985 has contributed to the nutrient and sediment pollution problem while the reductions in nutrient contamination have not come fast enough to meet the goals agreed to in the past. More needs to be done to have a healthy Chesapeake Bay and federal action was taken to enforce faster action.
The US EPA has taken control of the situation and can utilize what they call “back stop measures”, but are simply reductions in the allowed (permitted) releases from point source permits (waste water treatment plants, municipal separate storm sewer systems, and confined animal feed lots) to achieve the TMDL. At this time EPA can regulate only point source contamination, they cannot regulate non-point source contamination, which is runoff from roads, parking lots, yards and agricultural fields. The point source reductions are the most expensive way to achieve the reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the bay and would serve as a penalty to the state for failure to meet the targets under the watershed implementation plans. While the Prince William County HL Mooney Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant is state of the art, other plants in the state are not and the cost to achieve the reduced effluent numbers would far exceed the estimated cost of $7 billion to implement BPM’s to non-point sources.
The real plan is to implement (and maintain) enough BMPs to meet the reductions in the TMDL according to the Chesapeake Bay Model. The actual costs of BMPs are highly variable. For example the cost to plant a cover crop is much less than to fence a stream or stabilize an eroding river bank, and the $7 billion estimate may be the low cost estimate from implementing a BMP on every agricultural acre in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The local communities in Virginia have been asked by the Virginia Department of Natural Resources request to develop land use information and BMP inventory to meet the local WIP Phase I effort level. With the help of some computerized tools they are going to use the EPA model to determine the least cost method to reach the “acceptable level of effort” necessary to meet the EPA allocations.
Fundamentally, complying with the WIP is about spending enough money, putting in enough BMPs to have the Chesapeake Bay Model say that we meet our TMDL. BPMs are not always easy to see to the untrained eye. There are a long list of techniques to manage storm water to reduce runoff of nutrients and soil from urban, suburban and rural areas. A really expensive (and easy to see) BMP would be to repave roads and parking lots with pervious pavement so that storm water could soak into the road way thereby reducing runoff. This can be impractical as a retrofit because of cost of replacing roads and parking lots. More practical way to limit large volumes of storm water runoff would be to install a rain garden system along roadways and parking lots to infiltrate street runoff. Rain gardens look like landscaping. EPA has a long list of acceptable BMPs at various costs and effectiveness that can be used by communities to meet the requirements of the TMDL under the WIP. The challenge is determining what needs to be done, convincing people to do it (there is tremendous resistance to installing and maintaining BMPs by residents of communities, farmers and politicians) and paying for the BMPs.
Cost is a big issue. For FY 2012 EPA maintained the budget for the Chesapeake Bay Program at 2010 levels, $50 million, enough to monitor, advise and enforce the implementation of the seven WIPs, but clearly no money to pay for BMPs. In creating the Chesapeake Bay TMDL EPA has created an obligation of between $1,000 and $2,500 per person for everyone living in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed to meet the requirements of the WIP Phase I. The Virginia portion of complying with the WIP Phase I is estimated to cost at least $7 billion. As a conservationist, I fully support the common goal of a cleaner, healthier Chesapeake Bay watershed, but worry about the costs to implement the solution.