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Virginia Not on Track to Meet Latest Bay Cleanup Goals

Bayfromspace Some disheartening news: A CBF analysis of Virginia’s efforts over the past year to speed the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay indicates the Commonwealth is falling short in doing what state officials promised just a year ago. This doesn’t bode well for achieving what all acknowledge will be even more ambitious commitments needed to save the Bay in the coming years.

First, some background. As most people know, because more than two decades of voluntary agreements, unmet commitments, and missed deadlines failed to restore the Chesapeake Bay, the Obama Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are now aggressively pushing forward with a federal plan to clean up the Bay.

The crux of the federal plan is what’s called a Total Maximum Daily Load, essentially a scientifically derived limit on the amount of pollution the Bay system can safely tolerate. It’s often called a pollution diet for the Bay. Required by the Clean Water Act and court settlements from a decade ago and long anticipated, the diet specifies how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment will be allowed to go in the Bay and calls on the Bay states to devise plans to meet and maintain those limits.

Last year, the Bay state governors, including then Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, agreed with EPA that past cleanup efforts had failed, that an accelerated program was necessary, and that state cleanup plans to comply with the Bay diet should be completed no later than the end of 2010. The states then would begin implementing those plans, with phased two-year milestone goals, deadlines, and progress reports to EPA – a key tool to ensure everyone is doing what their plans called for. The end goal is a restored Bay by 2025.

So important is it to accelerate the cleanup that the Bay state governors and EPA agreed publicly last year to establish initial three-year milestones to be achieved by the end of 2011.

But CBF’s analysis found little evidence of an overall acceleration of Bay cleanup as Virginia pledged in 2009. In the first year of its initial milestones, little new was done. To make matters worse, Virginia has cut back on some restoration programs because of budget concerns.

On the plus side, Virginia pledged to work with farmers to use continuous no-till, a conservation practice that reduces erosion and runoff pollution, on 81,000 acres by 2011. CBF’s analysis found the state had achieved 96 percent of that goal, a commendable accomplishment with still more than a year to go on this interim milestone.

Also by the end of 2010, Virginia will have achieved 100 percent of its milestone to require upgrades at specific local wastewater treatment plants in order to achieve nitrogen and phosphorus pollution reduction goals. Again, a notable achievement.

But the news is not as good on other key milestones. For example, the Commonwealth promised to fence livestock from farm streams on 89,500 new acres in three years. Fencing livestock out of farm streams reduces animal waste and stream bank erosion from fouling the water downstream. CBF’s analysis found that to date, only 11,204 new acres have been fenced, or 13 percent of the milestone goal.

Other milestones and progress to date:

• Grass buffers to filter pollution from farm streams: goal, 2,000 new acres of farm fields; achieved, 420 acres or 21 percent.

• Forest buffers to filter pollution from farm streams: goal, 10,000 new acres; achieved, 3,421 acres or 34 percent.

• Urban nutrient management: goal, 133,000 acres; achieved, 20,934 acres or 16 percent.

• Farm nutrient management plans: goal, 258,000 new acres; achieved, unknown because available data doesn’t distinguish between plans for new and existing acreage.

So alarmed is CBF at this record of mixed success that CBF Virginia Executive Director Ann Jennings wrote the state’s Secretary of Natural Resources, Doug Domenech, this week, saying, “While Virginia had outlined preliminary plans to accelerate rates of pollution reduction, the practices currently underway are not capable of achieving the cleanup goals outlined in the first milestones. Should this continue, critical milestone targets will not be met by the end of 2011…

“We remain hopeful that the limited progress toward the first milestones is not a signal of a faltering commitment to restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries.”  

CBF’s letter goes on to recommend a number of steps the state could take to quicken pollution reduction from wastewater treatment plants, farms, urban runoff, and septic systems.

These are telling times for the Chesapeake Bay. As the past 20 years clearly demonstrate, rhetoric and empty promises will not save the Bay. Let us hope – demand – that we don’t have déjà vu all over again.

Will this be another footnote in the list of broken Bay restoration promises, or do you think Virginia can turn it around?

By Chuck Epes


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I own a small landscaping company in Virginia and I am opposed to the whole idea of a TMDL - but not for the reasons one might expect. I think that any pollution is too much and setting any goal higher than 0% is a waste of time. Look at the past 25 years and how grudgingly any progress at cleaning up the Bay has been made. It is human nature to procrastinate - give us 15 more years to work on the problem and I guarantee that most will do nothing for 14 of them, and then beg for an extension. Turn off the pollution now and make it hurt if we don't. It's like pulling a band-aid off - it hurts less if you do it quickly

Plenty of $, no real progress. Now lack of $, and we will see even less progress. Given elected offical priorities the Bay is down on their list. MD DNR opening up more taking of female crabs, Va take menhaden, what's left?

To Tom Thompson:

I understand where you are coming from, and your frustration. However, I'm not sure what you suggest is practical. If you literally mean stopping 100 percent of pollution flowing into the Bay, the government would have to (for example) shut down all of the sewage treatment plants in the six states of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, plus the District of Columbia -- because even treated sewage plant effluent has a small amount of pollution in it. So then people would be left with using septic tanks or just outhouses -- and this waste would also seep into the Bay.

So it makes sense for the government to reduce the amount of pollution flowing into the Bay as much as possible, given the limits of technology.

John...Actually, the Bay cleanup has never had plenty of money, which is one of the reasons for the record of failure over the past few decades. For example, programs to reduce farm runoff, address urban stormwater, and to restore oysters have always been underfunded, some times woefully so. But you could certainly argue that, were Bay cleanup a genuine priority of elected officials, such funding would be made available, so you're right, politicians generally have done more talking than acting when it comes to the Bay. That said, it's not just about money. There are many regulations and laws on the books already that could be more aggressively enforced that would help clean up the Bay. Case in point in Va.: the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.
Chuck Epes

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