At the October 7th 2016 meeting of the Potomac Watershed Roundtable the Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources for the Chesapeake Bay Russ Baxter reviewed Virginia’s costs and accomplishments towards achieving our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, mandated reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, septic systems, air pollution and other sources have impaired the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. 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.
The EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. The TMDL sets a total limit for the entire watershed of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year 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 six states and Washington DC with EPA oversight created plans of how they intend to achieve their assigned pollution reduction goals. These plans are called the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs, and lay out a series of pollution control measures that need to be put in place by 2025 to achieve the goals. While it will take years after 2025 for the Bay and its tributaries to fully heal, EPA expects that if 60% of the pollution controls are in place by 2017 and the rest of the pollution control measures are in place by 2025 the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem can heal itself. Management of the Chesapeake Bay is accomplished by using a model that has been continuously updated and improved and is now in its Phase 6.
About half of Virginia’s 39,490 square miles are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and two-thirds of the state's population lives within the watershed area that impacts the Chesapeake Bay. To make the process manageable, EPA reviews Virginia’s progress every two years against what they call milestones -short-term goals. So far Virginia has met their state-wide milestone targets for nitrogen and phosphorus, but failed to meet its state-wide target for sediment. However, the Commonwealth presented plans to “catch up” and meet the important 2017 targets to the EPA.
From now on, achieving the goals becomes more difficult. The obvious targets for reduction have been taken as part of the 2017 reductions. The 2017 goals for nitrogen and phosphorus will be met by Virginia by having completed wastewater treatment plant improvements and expansions ahead of population growth. In total Virginians will have spent about $2 billion from 1998-2017 to upgrade the waste water treatment plants in the watershed. Half the money came from the state and the other half came from the individual waste water treatment plants that issued bonds and ultimately increased sewer rates for residents. That was expensive, but easy to achieve reductions- we knew how to do it.
The remaining areas for reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment for the midpoint evaluation and ultimately the 2025 goals are in the agricultural, suburban and urban storm water management. These are harder targets to hit because the sources of pollution in these areas are non-point source pollution (NPS), diffuse sources of pollution. These pollutants do not come out of a pipe, but are carried to streams and rivers by runoff of rain and snowmelt.
The way to reduce non-point source pollution on the environment is to control stormwater and implement what is called “best management practices” (BMPs). BMPs have mostly been used in the agricultural sector. Virginia made great progress towards the EPA goal in management of livestock. A huge program carried out by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts to induce all animal operations to fence all pastures to exclude all livestock from rivers and streams and provide alternate sources of water for the animals away from rivers and streams. This is being accomplished by the state paying for 100% of the fencing for projects approved in the first two years and 80% combined with federal money for current projects. All the committed projects need to be installed by 2017 to meet the goal.
In total, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts will have provided technical assistance worth $178,000,000 and financial incentives (paying for all or part of the cost to install these agricultural mitigations) totaling $200,000,000 to minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides; to reduce runoff and slow rain water, and exclude animals from rivers and streams over time period (1998-2017).
To achieve the next set of TMDL goals, Virginia is going to have to expand BMP programs and induce homeowners and business owners to change how they take care of their lawns and take action one yard at a time to reduce stormwater runoff to meet tightened stormwater goals. The Soil and Water Conservation Districts together have estimated that it will take and additional $1,740,119,000 for the technical assistance and cost sharing needs to meet these goals expanding our existing programs and using such innovative programs as the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program designed for suburban homeowners.
In addition, Virginia is making a big push to address urban stormwater. The Commonwealth has created a Stormwater Assistance Fund with a first round of $40,000,000 in funding. Total costs to upgrade the urban and suburban stormwater systems throughout the watershed are not yet known. You have heard about rain taxes and pavement taxes that local governments are struggling with to pay for the improvements in their stormwater management systems. There will have to be significant improvements in the stormwater systems to meet the EPA 2025 goal and it will be expensive.