Approaching the Chesapeake Bay Midpoint Assessment -- Part I

by Mariah Davis

June 20, 2018

The Chesapeake Bay restoration effort is arguably one of the largest conservation endeavors ever undertaken. The Bay watershed is made up of 150 major rivers and streams and contains 100,000 smaller tributaries spread across Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. It supplies drinking water for more than 17 million residents and is one of the most important economic drivers on the East Coast of the United States.

The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), enacted in 2010 by the Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) in collaboration with the Chesapeake Bay states, is a framework for allocating and eliminating excessive loads of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment polluting the watershed. It was designed to ensure that pollution control measures would reduce persistent dead zones in the Bay and its tidal tributaries by 2025. As part of the TMDL, the states and the District are required to develop Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) – roadmaps for addressing their share of pollution reductions. In theory, the WIPs are supposed to be binding plans, although in practical terms, they are only as binding as EPA is willing to insist that the states live up to their commitments. Each WIP is developed in partnership with input from stakeholders, scientists, nonprofits, and local governments, and each jurisdiction is required to develop WIPs at three distinct phases before the 2025 deadline.

The Phase I and Phase II WIPs were developed and submitted to the EPA in 2010 and 2012, respectively. The Phase I WIP was designed to identify the distribution of nutrient and sediment loads by source, sectors, and areas of drainage. It included "final target loads" to meet water quality standards that are to be achieved by 2025. Phase II WIPs were developed by each of the jurisdictions with the goal of achieving 60 percent of the final pollution-reduction targets by 2017. In the third and final phase, now upon us, jurisdictions are responsible for developing WIPs that account for all remaining pollution reductions before 2025 and that integrate critical policy decisions on growth and climate change, for example.

In this post and a follow-up, I'll take a look at how each of the Bay states characterized and evaluated prior WIPs, remaining challenges for meeting pollution targets, and how the public can engage in the next Phase of the WIP development.

New York

The WIP development in New York has been a collaborative effort between New York State's Department of Agriculture and Markets, the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, and Cornell University. Implementation took place at the county level by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, which are collectively implementing more than 5,000 conservation projects. Pollution reduction from the agriculture, wastewater, and stormwater sectors has been a main focus in the previous phases of the WIP.

New York's Phase II WIP failed to fully implement its nitrogen and sediment reduction goals. While New York has comprehensive programs, particularly for agriculture, tracking best management practices (BMPs) and sharing that information across projects has been difficult.

Fortunately, some improvements were made to curb phosphorus leaching through wastewater and fertilizers. Through the legislature, several laws were passed to limit these pollutants in commercial use. Reinvestments in wastewater, sewer, and septic upgrades were also made to clean water infrastructure.

For the Phase III WIP, advocates in New York would like to address the future impact of climate change and improve data tracking. The Upper Susquehanna Coalition is currently developing the National Environmental Information Exchange Network (NEIN) for future data reporting on the Chesapeake Bay Program. The data will be used for WIP III planning and specific data needs.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania's development and implementation of its Phase II WIP failed to adequately enforce county targets, which has led to the state's substantial shortfall in meeting its goals. Future improvements, such as a county-level scale and enforceable local TMDL efforts, could prove beneficial for the Phase III WIP development.

Pennsylvania's effort to meet its reduction targets faces a number of challenges. Insufficient funding by the state legislature has hampered efforts to implement a number of common sense practices. Establishing a dedicated clean water fund, such as the proposed HB20, would be crucial. Along with this, state resource agencies have not received adequate funding over the last several years. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been slashed by roughly 40 percent over the past 14 years, which has increased wait times on permits and decreased and their ability to provide oversight. The state lacks a dedicated funding source for implementation of various best management practices and clean water programs.

Moreover, the state's agriculture cost-share program is in need of a complete overhaul. While the program does provide financial support to producers and processors through cost-sharing of applicable certification fees for practicing good agriculture practices (GAP), this program does not incentivize the use of various conservation practices such as BMPs.

In addition to addressing these shortfalls, advocates are pushing for a comprehensive plan outlining public engagement to garner buy-in from the community and stakeholders for the Phase III WIP in four pilot counties (Lancaster, York, Adams, and Franklin counties). Through this process, the state is hoping to better engage individuals from a variety of backgrounds to develop BMP's to help meet the TMDL. The DEP and the state are doing this from a local level; they want to make sure they allow the counties and their local governments to set goals that are quantifiably reachable for their region. The state has developed a steering committee dedicated to restoring its rivers and streams via the WIP process, and the public is encouraged to engage in steering committee meetings to provide input on the WIP, which focuses on local government engagement. For any of that to succeed, however, it is imperative that EPA exerts its authority to implement backstops for pollution reduction goals at the state level so that goals will be met even if the state's efforts falter.

West Virginia

The implementation process of WIP II implementation in the state has been steered by the West Virginia Chesapeake Bay Tributaries Strategies Team, a partnership of agencies and nonprofits working with local governments, utilities, land owners, and the public. Coordinated by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with support from the Conservation Agency, Division of Forestry, Division of Agriculture, and the Eastern Panhandle Regional Planning Development Council (Region 9), this effort has been primarily focused on finding connections among the goals and mandates of local governments with the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership. Pollution reductions from the agriculture and stormwater sectors remain a particular focus in West Virginia. 

The Eastern Panhandle Regional Planning and Development Council (Region 9) staffs the Region 9 Chesapeake Bay Program Coordinator to work with local governments and utilities to develop projects across multiple sectors to include agriculture and stormwater. This key role is to identify critical matching funds for projects to meet the goals of the TMDL.

Two projects in the City of Charles Town and the Town of Bath exemplify how the local governments leveraged existing funds for projects that reduce wastewater discharge and provide solutions to stormwater management through green infrastructure practices. While these projects have helped mitigate pollution entering the watershed, success lies in helping local governments solve their identified problems by tapping into the Chesapeake Bay Program effort.

Inadequate funding for conservation practices continues to be an impediment in West Virginia. For the Phase III WIP development, advocates in West Virginia aspire to see more capacity for local governments to enhance on-the-ground project coordination. Planning for green infrastructure and innovative land conservation have funding needs but would be ideal to consider in the development of WIP III.

Additionally, there is a need for more robust public awareness throughout the state. Much of the focus on the WIP has been technical without a clear vision as to why these practices benefit local waterways that benefit public health and prosperity for the state.

In a subsequent post, I'll take a look at WIPs work in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC. Stay tuned.

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Also from Mariah Davis

Mariah Davis is Field Manager of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. A Virginia native, she has led and executed clean water and climate action strategies to engage elected officials on the importance of protecting and sustaining programs most viable to the Chesapeake Bay. She strives to promote environmental justice to ensure overburdened communities share equitably in the benefits of clean water.

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