Monday, June 23, 2014

Virginia's Chesapeake Bay TMDL Report Card

The Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters have been impaired by the release of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. These pollutants are released from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, septic systems, air pollution and other sources that enter the tributaries and Chesapeake Bay. These pollutants cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom.

Since the 1980’s the six bay states- Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York-and Washington DC have been trying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Though the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased over the past thirty years, the Bay’s waters remain degraded. As a result, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to restore the local waters. 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 % reduction in sediment from the 2011 levels. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data. The TMDL addresses only pollution from excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

In addition, each of the six states and Washington DC were required to submit and have approved by the EPA a detailed plan of how they intend to achieve the pollution reduction goals assigned to them. These plans are called the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs. The Virginia WIP and the other plan) lay out a series of pollution control measures called best management practices, BMPs that need to be put in place by 2025, with 60% of the BMPs 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 BMPs are in place (and maintained) there will be gradual and continued improvement in water quality as the BMPs reduce the nutrient and sediment run off and better control storm water so that the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem can heal itself.

About half of the 39,490 square mile land area of Virginia is drained by the creeks, streams and rivers that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and two-thirds of the state's 8.26 million population lives within the watershed. To develop a remediation plan acceptable to the EPA and likely to achieve the goals of the revised WIP, the state legislature passed a series of laws and the state implemented a series of regulations addressing among other items: nutrient management plans, septic regulations, limitations of the sale and use of lawn maintenance fertilizer, banning deicing agents containing urea, nitrogen, or phosphorus intended for application on parking lots roadways, and sidewalks, or other paved surfaces, etc.

Many of these laws and regulations address non-point source pollution (NPS) which is a major factor impacting the quality of the water supply. The rate at which diffuse sources of pollution are generated and delivered to water resources is greatly affected by human activities and natural processes. These pollutants do not come out of a pipe, but are transported to surface water bodies by runoff, which results from rain or snowmelt. The way to reduce impact of this non-point source pollution on the environment is to implement what has been called “best management practices.” BMPs minimize the use of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. to achieve a desired level of performance and quality while protecting the environment. BMPs are also designed to reduce runoff and  benefit water quality while maintaining or even enhancing agricultural production. EPA has never had the authority to regulate non-point source pollution, but through the TMDL and WIPs that is exactly what they are doing.

Recently, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Choose Clean Water Coalition (CCWC) issued their report reviewing the results of the 2012-13 pollution reduction milestones against the states’ WIPs and found that pollution is being reduced in every state and Washington DC. They report that “Virginia met its overall pollution reduction goals for 2013. Of the eight practices assessed, the Commonwealth met or exceeded its goals for fencing cattle out of streams and urban stream restoration, and was very close to meeting the goal for agricultural practices such as nutrient management, pasture management, and cover crops. Virginia fell short of its goals for forest buffers, conservation tillage, stormwater practices, urban nutrient management, and composite urban practices.”

Virginia remains significantly agricultural and has used the voluntary agricultural cost share program implemented by the state’s conservation districts to reach out to farmers to educate and assist in the implementation of BMPs and verify their maintenance. There has never been a program designed to educate and implement BMPs in suburban communities. In the past several years Virginia has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and utilized its Soil and Water Conservation Districts to expand the utilization of stream exclusion fencing by offering to have the state pay for the total amount of the fencing. Conservation districts were very successful in giving away fencing to farmers and are working to count the fencing that already exists and is effective and might not meet current cost share program guidelines.

In the first two years of the WIP, Virginia has struggled to build programs and methods for data gathering to address the problems with managing and tracking implementation of what is essentially remedial programs for farming operations both large and small and for individuals. EPA is using the WIPs to reach down and manage what is called non-point source pollution. Much of the urban stormwater management in Virginia is suburban and is a house by house, street by street series of plans that will be implemented by builders and existing homeowners, and maintained by homeowners and some will have to be retrofitted to existing communities. It is not clear how that will be accomplished, nor tracked as the new stormwater regulations have been delayed due to the challenges of implementation. Given these challenges it is not at all surprising that the first steps taken towards the TMDL were the ones that could be most easily implemented and tracked. The steps taken had the programs in place to both implement and track progress.
from CBF

It was noted by CBF and CCWC in their review that conservation tillage acres had actually declined since 2011. This is probably not true; the cost share incentives for conservation tillage have declined as the practice has become more widely adopted by farmers without the need for financial incentives. However, the farming practices that are not part of the cost share program have not been routinely tracked. So, the decline in conservation tillage acres may simply be a reflection that the Commonwealth does not track nor document every activity of every farmer in the state. Though, this may become necessary to satisfy the requirements of the EPA to require the implementation of resource management plans on most agricultural acres.

from CFB

Virginia also has a lot of work ahead to develop the infrastructure for the implementation of Virginia’s new Stormwater Management Regulations especially in smaller communities. Ways to work with existing homeowners and communities to address these diverse small sources of contamination will require the development of programs, education and outreach. The time and difficulty in implementing septic regulations on alternative septic systems and having the homeowners comply with regulations to inspect and maintain their systems is a challenge that is yet to be solved. It is not clear what level of data collection and tracking will be necessary for the individual homeowner. EPA is mandating to counties and towns actions that will raise property taxes, and require changes to properties and behavior. Citizens will first have to be convinced to support these programs.

To meet the demands of the WIP, the total amount of stormwater runoff will have to be reduced. This means that there will have to be implementation of improved stormwater management in existing developments to meet reductions in nutrient and sediment loads. The Commonwealth needs to reduce pollution from stormwater running off urban streets and parking lots by mandating reductions in state permits for large city stormwater systems and requiring some implementation of improved stormwater management in suburban developments. 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.

Given the challenges of developing programs for addressing non-point source pollution to meet the TMDL pollution reduction goals one home and a few acres at a time, it is not surprising that Virginia has used the big nutrient reduction numbers from waste water treatment plant upgrades and a big push in stream exclusion fencing by having the state pay the full cost to achieve the first round of benchmarks. The CBF Virginia Executive Director, Ann Jennings, says in the report: "Our analysis of the 2012/13 milestones indicate that reductions from wastewater treatment plants will not carry us across the goal line. The McAuliffe Administration has a unique and important opportunity to put Virginia on course for success by taking more aggressive steps to confront agricultural and urban pollution." I am very interested in seeing what those aggressive steps might be.

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