Traditional sewage plants and septic systems were designed primarily to reduce bacteria, but not the nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), found in waste. The Bay suffers from too many nutrients.
The good news is that upgrades and operational efficiencies at sewage plants throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed have resulted in steep reductions in nutrient pollution. These improvements have been paid for through billions of dollars of public funding, but the benefits from cleaner water far exceed the costs.
Since the regional Bay clean-up plan—called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—was established in 2010, the wastewater sector cut nitrogen levels from 52 million pounds to 36 million pounds annually, as of 2018. That’s real progress. This reduction far exceeds the 2017 interim pollution goal the Blueprint set for the sector, and effectively meets the 2025 Bay Blueprint target, according to a Chesapeake Bay Program analysis.
One problem looms, however. As more people move into the Bay area, flows to sewage treatment plants will continue to increase, along with pollution. Moving forward, jurisdictions will need to ensure that this sector maintains its nutrient pollutant limits in the face of growing populations, increased storm events, sea level rise, temperature changes, and other factors.
The significant progress reducing pollution from sewage plants has not been matched in more suburban and rural areas where onsite septic systems are used to treat human waste. These backyard systems handle a large portion of household waste in many counties in the Bay region. Efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution from septic systems are lagging, with these systems releasing about 7.8 million pounds a year. The 2017 interim goal for the sector was 7.1 million pounds discharged annually.
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution cause algae blooms that block sunlight to underwater grasses and remove oxygen from the water, creating "dead zones"—areas of the Bay that have too little oxygen to support a healthy ecosystem. These problems degrade habitat for key plants and animals in the Bay's ecosystem, including underwater grasses, crabs, rockfish, and oysters.
To keep states on track to meet sewage and septic pollution reduction goals, the CBF is:
- Educating the public and elected officials about the importance of improved sewage treatment to Bay restoration.
- Seeking and safeguarding funding sources to pay for upgrades.
- Demanding that the states and EPA enforce existing laws to limit nitrogen pollution from these sources.
- Working with a public-private partnership to establish a program using nutrient trading to reduce pollution.
CBF in 2004 issued a report detailing how much nitrogen pollution was coming from major sewage plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In addition, A "Lot" for Less, a report prepared for CBF by Clifford W. Randall, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech, concluded that implementation of nitrogen removal technology could be accomplished for 50 to 60 percent less than current projected costs. Since then, CBF has continued to educate the public through media coverage, the CBF website, social media and other means.
In 2004 in Maryland, CBF helped pass the Bay Restoration Fund (BRF), which established a fund to upgrade the state's 66 major sewer plants. Later, the fund also was used to upgrade on-site septic systems. Originally, each Maryland household paid $2.50 monthly to the fund. In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly increased the fee to $5 a month. As of 2018, the BRF had helped 59 major sewage plants install enhanced nutrient reduction technology, resulting in an annual cut of 6.7 million pounds of nitrogen to the Bay.
In Virginia, the legislature has provided significant state funding and bond money for sewage treatment plant upgrades. But continued investment is still needed for localities to meet Virginia's water quality goals. CBF continues to advocate for sufficient state assistance to local wastewater treatment plants to meet Chesapeake Bay Blueprint goals for 2025 and beyond.
CBF has filed several legal challenges to force the EPA, along with Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, to comply with the Clean Water Act and require enforceable permit limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from sewage treatment and industrial plants. CBF tracks new and revised permits in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to ensure that the states comply with this requirement.