(WASHINGTON, DC)—The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released its evaluation of the states’ and District of Columbia’s clean-up plans, formally known as Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans, that were finalized in August. Notably, EPA did not take any action to hold Pennsylvania accountable for the failure of its plan to demonstrate reasonable assurance that the Commonwealth will meet its pollution-reduction goals by 2025. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) assessed the comments on the plans for Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, which together are responsible for 90 percent of the pollution reaching the Chesapeake Bay.
While Virginia and Maryland still have work to do, both states have outlined plans identifying the programs and practices to be put in place by 2025 that will restore water quality in local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania’s plan, however, continues to be sorely deficient. It has an estimated annual funding gap of more than $300 million and is 25 percent short of reaching its pollution-reduction goal for nitrogen.
After decades of failed voluntary efforts, in 2010 the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint was developed and a deadline for full implementation was set for 2025. Experts around the world agree it is our best, and perhaps last, chance for success.
What makes the Blueprint different than previous attempts is that it was supposed to have teeth. It includes science-based pollution limits and requires the Bay states and District of Columbia to design and implement plans to meet them. It also ensures accountability and transparency through two-year, incremental goals called milestones and sets a goal of having the programs and practices in place by 2025 that will result in a restored Bay. If Pennsylvania fails to meet its commitments, the partnership will never meet its goal.
As required by the Clean Water Act, EPA committed to providing oversight and enforcement of the Blueprint. If any jurisdiction fails to take the appropriate actions, EPA has said it will impose consequences. But today, they did not.
“Pennsylvania’s executive leadership has admitted that it has neither a complete plan nor the money to meet the Commonwealth’s repeated promise to reduce pollution. Pennsylvania has consistently come up short in its implementation of every two-year milestone plan since 2010. This current failure to reach the 2025 goals should be no surprise,” said CBF President William C. Baker. “EPA has failed to fulfill its obligation to be the referee of the multi-state partnership. It has not held Pennsylvania accountable. Rather, it has once again kicked the can down the road, abdicating its Clean Water Act responsibilities and putting the Bay restoration in jeopardy.”
Agriculture is the largest source of pollution to rivers and streams in Pennsylvania and to the Bay. While there has been real commitment from farmers, county conservation districts, local nonprofits, and countless others to help farmers implement conservation measures, Pennsylvania’s elected officials have repeatedly failed to provide adequate financial investments.
“Eleven years ago next month, CBF sued EPA over its failure to uphold the Clean Water Act.,” Baker added. “EPA’s continued failure means we will consider that option again.”
Unlike past watershed implementation plans, Pennsylvania’s plan reflects two years of extensive engagement and collaboration among farmers, townships, conservationists, and many others. And, for the first time, it will establish detailed, countywide action plans for the 43 counties in Pennsylvania’s Bay watershed.
Much attention is focused on agriculture for achieving the required nitrogen reductions. Many farmers are proud of the progress they’ve made implementing conservation practices. They’re excited by the cover crops they’ve planted, the organic matter they’ve added to their soil through better management, as well as the potential for adding trees.
There has also been a demonstrated commitment from county conservation districts and local nonprofits to help farmers implement conservation measures. They are working diligently, at capacity, and want to make a difference.
Pennsylvania farmers want to help clean up the Commonwealth’s waterways. They’re willing to invest their time, land, and effort to the plan.
Yet, a plan is only as good as its implementation, and this one falls short.
“The Commonwealth needs to act quickly and decisively to invest in critical practices, programs and people that can get Pennsylvania back on track toward its Blueprint goal of cleaning and protecting our rivers and streams. Our health, wellbeing, and quality of life depend on it,” said CBF’s Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell. “Any delay in supporting the many boots on the ground that are working hard for cleaner water—farmers, conservation districts, sportsmen and women, and others—means another day of potential losses from flooding, and fewer planted trees and cover crops that keep soil and polluted runoff on the land instead of in the water.”
EPA confirmed that, if fully implemented, Maryland's Clean Water Blueprint would achieve the state's Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction goals by 2025. This is the direct result of the long-standing commitment from multiple governors and the legislature to fund wastewater treatment plant upgrades and partner with farmers to implement conservation practices. It also reflects hard work by local governments and community organizations across the state. However, EPA expressed concern over areas of impaired local water quality, the adequacy of the state's funding framework for agricultural practices, and the lagging pace of pollution reduction in the stormwater sector. EPA also noted that the state lacks a concrete strategy to offset the impacts of future growth. EPA's review confirms CBF's assessment of these issues as significant risks to the long term success of the Blueprint, especially in the face of additional stressors due to climate change. In light of EPA's review, CBF renews its call on the state to expand natural filters such as forests and wetlands, address increasing pollution from development, and strengthen technical assistance to farmers and local governments. Right now, Maryland’s plan relies on expensive annual programs such as cover crops and street sweeping that require the state and local jurisdictions to spend tens of millions of dollars per year. And if those programs expand, their costs to Maryland taxpayers will increase.
Instead, the state should consider increasing cost share payments to farmers to help them pay for permanent practices, such as converting cropland to grass pasture or installing streamside forest buffers. These long-term environmental improvements represent a one-time cost to the state but provide water filtering and carbon storage benefits year after year that will help insulate the state against climate change.
Maryland’s plan also lowers expectations for cities and towns to reduce polluted stormwater runoff from developed areas. The plan expects the state’s 10 most developed counties and Baltimore City to treat runoff from impervious surface at about half the pace required over the previous eight years. Because of this, stormwater pollution from developed areas is expected to grow. The state should examine ways to help counties, cities, and towns invest in green infrastructure, such as bioswales, green roofs, and rain gardens, to filter runoff before it flows into streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.
“Maryland has long been a leader in protecting its environment. But the state can no longer rely on wastewater plant upgrades and expensive annual agricultural practices to continue reducing Chesapeake Bay pollutants. Instead, the state must prioritize long-term projects that add more trees, wetlands, and grass pastures to the landscape,” CBF Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost said. “At the same time, our cities and towns must invest in projects that divert and filter polluted stormwater before it drains into our waterways. These improvements, along with bolstering staff levels to implement and monitor them, will help the state meet its 2025 goals and maintain those pollution reductions long-term. Doing so will lessen the local effects of climate change.”
EPA’s Review of Virginia’s plan shows that the Commonwealth can meet its clean water goals for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries by using a balanced approach of reducing polluted runoff from agriculture and developed areas and continuing efforts to stem pollution from sewage treatment plants.
The General Assembly session that begins on January 9 is the best opportunity to ensure these goals are achieved. Virginia legislators must accelerate investments in the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, the Agricultural Cost Share Program, and the Water Quality Improvement Fund, which all provide essential state support for work by farmers, localities, and sewage treatment facilities.
Strengthening policies as described in the plan will also be important. Significant examples include setting a deadline for fencing all cattle from perennial streams and implementing nutrient management plans on cropland, continuing equitable wastewater upgrades, as well as enabling Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
“Governor Northam has developed a strong plan for reaching Virginia’s longstanding Bay restoration goals and has backed it up with a historic clean water budget. These initiatives will give Virginians healthier rivers and streams, a better quality of life, and make important progress in addressing climate change,” said CBF Virginia Assistant Director Peggy Sanner. “In the upcoming Virginia General Assembly session, our legislators must take the steps needed to ensure Virginia reaches its clean water commitments by 2025.”