Ask a Scientist: Understanding the Bay pollution diet and what it means for the Eastern Shore of Virginia
Recently, we’ve had a lot of questions about why the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s required pollution reductions to meet the Bay TMDL or pollution diet are higher than the rest of the state. One individual asks, “What I don't understand is why the Eastern Shore of VA must reduce nitrates by 25 percent, but Virginia Beach by only 4 percent. The DEQ [Virginia Department of Environmental Quality] is placing an extreme burden on our locale by this mandate. Both our Board of Supervisors (Accomack and Northampton) are alarmed indeed.”
Because there have been so many questions surrounding this issue, we asked CBF’s Virginia Senior Scientist Mike Gerel to shed some light on the Bay TMDL or “pollution diet,” and what it means for Virginia:
Virginia made the decision (not the federal government) last November in their Virginia Bay-wide “Phase 1” Bay cleanup plan to assign a higher percentage level of effort to agriculture compared to other pollution sources. Since the majority of the nitrogen pollution load from the Eastern Shore is from agricultural lands (around 70 percent as of 2009), communities like Accomack were assigned more nitrogen pollution reductions compared to communities with fewer agricultural lands.
We believe there are several reasons Virginia chose to require more pollution reductions from agricultural lands in their Phase 1 plan. Mandated upgrades of sewage treatment plants serving urban communities have achieved substantial pollution reductions over the last 25 years (a 42 percent nitrogen cut, compared to a 28 percent cut for agricultural lands). Most large plants will be at or near state-of-the-art by later this year, so further reductions are not readily available with current technology. Next, the McDonnell Administration made it very clear during the Phase 1 plan development that they were going to pursue the most cost-effective solutions. The costs to install conservation practices to cut nitrogen pollution on agricultural lands (up to $100 per pound of nitrogen) are significantly less expensive than pursuing cuts on urban lands ($1,000s per pound of nitrogen). Lastly, as of 2009 across the Virginia Bay watershed, agricultural lands generate a greater percentage of the total nitrogen loading (32 percent) than do urban lands (10 percent), and thus, were assigned a comparatively higher percentage of nitrogen reductions moving forward.
Keep in mind that the percent nitrogen cuts noted in your question that were assigned to Accomack (25 percent cut) and urban communities like Arlington or Virginia Beach (4-5 percent cut) do not include additional nitrogen reductions required of some urban localities with large sewage treatment plants. For example, the Phase 1 plan requires seven large plants operated by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District that serve Virginia Beach and nearby cities—the majority of the remaining large plants that do not deliver state-of-the-art treatment—to complete upgrades by 2023 that will cut nitrogen pollution an additional 6 million pounds .
Virginia is currently working with localities to develop the “Phase 2” cleanup plan that will define local responsibilities under the Bay TMDL. The state has some flexibility in this plan to adjust locality-specific goals provided the overall Bay TMDL goals are met. Locality input on the Phase 2 plan is due to the state by October, with a final plan due for release in March 2012.
There is no question that the Chesapeake Bay system is complex, as are the new cleanup plans designed to restore it after more than 30 years of failure. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has been actively responding to questions from localities and other local stakeholders who are newly engaged in the details of Bay cleanup planning. To further assist this process, we are working with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to develop a series of workshops for Virginia’s Planning District Commissions (PDCs) in August. This will provide an opportunity for PDC and locality staff to voice concerns and seek answers to questions from the DCR staff who will prepare the final Phase 2 plan.
Some have said that pollution from individual communities represent “a drop in the bucket” for the Bay’s sad condition. The problem is there are drops into the Bay’s “bucket” from thousands of sources and communities across its massive 64,000 square-mile watershed that, in total, have led to an unhealthy Bay. The bottom line is that farmers, sewage treatment plant operators, towns and cities, developers, citizens—everyone—throughout the watershed will need to do more to help fully restore our local streams and the Bay. Virginia is working hard to pursue on-the-ground solutions that balance water quality, economic, and community needs across the 15-year implementation period of the new Bay cleanup effort.
We encourage you to contact your local officials and urge them to move forward on the steps necessary to ensure the cleanup effort delivers the healthy streams, productive shellfish waters, open beaches, clean water sources, and the restored Bay that is so important to Virginia communities, especially those on the Eastern Shore.
Thank you again for your interest in this important issue.
—Mike Gerel, Virginia Senior Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation