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Bay Cleanup Asks Too Much, Too Fast

Aug 01, 2011 08:35PM ● By Anonymous
Many counties in the region face clean-up costs that will exceed $1 billion.

Those are "big numbers and scary numbers," said Randy Bartlett, deputy public works director for Fairfax County in Virginia at a recent meeting of EPA officials and Washington, D.C. area governments. Meanwhile, he noted, “We're cutting teachers, we're cutting police and we're cutting fire."

Many local officials acknowledge that the Bay cleanup will also mean improvements to their local streams - where progress has lagged - and could bolster the economy by creating new jobs. Still, cash-strapped local governments are having sticker shock over initial cost estimates.

"The costs come up every time," acknowledged Jeff Corbin, senior adviser for the Bay to the EPA administrator, who has met with local officials. "The costs are tremendous, but what do we do?"

More than a quarter century after states and the federal government formed the Bay Program to restore the Chesapeake, the estuary's water quality remains poor as too many nutrients and too much sediment pour into it each year. The result is murky water, algae blooms and large areas with too little oxygen to support aquatic life.

After the region repeatedly failed to meet past cleanup goals, the EPA at the end of December enacted a new, more enforceable cleanup plan known as a total maximum daily load - or TMDL - which sets the maximum amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment allowed to reach the Bay. The EPA is requiring that goals be met by 2025, with 60 percent of the needed pollution controls implemented by 2017. (Maryland is calling for achieving its mark by 2020, with 70 percent implementation by 2017.) The EPA has threatened to take a variety of actions against those who fail to make adequate progress.

States and individual rivers were assigned maximum amounts of each pollutant they would be allowed to discharge into the Chesapeake each year and states had to write detailed watershed implementation plans - or WIPs - showing how they would meet those goals, including new sources of funding or regulations that might be needed.

Environmental groups and clean water advocates have praised the plans as overdue actions needed to finally restore the Bay's health. But the plans have triggered fear in much of the farming community, which will likely face increased regulations. The American Farm Bureau Federation and Pennsylvania Farm Bureau have filed suit to block the TMDL in court. But the bulk of the costs will hit urban areas, which have to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and reduce stormwater runoff. Both carry huge price tags.

"Urban ratepayers are footing an enormous bill," said George Hawkins, general manager DC Water. Upgrades at its Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant will cost nearly $1 billion, and stormwater improvements in the District may cost twice that. The reality of the Bay cleanup will hit home this summer as states work with local governments, conservation districts and others to write Phase II WIPs, which will include local nutrient and sediment reduction goals and local plans to achieve them.

Across the watershed, a handful of local governments have gotten head starts, as the EPA last year provided funding to several jurisdictions to explore the development of local plans. One of those was Anne Arundel County in Maryland, where county environmental officials have been devising strategies to reduce nitrogen loads to the Bay by nearly 25 percent, along with significant phosphorus and sediment reductions.

The county's agricultural land contributes less than 10 percent of the nutrient load, so the largest chunk of nutrient reductions will come from wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Still, that will leave the county well short of its nutrient goals - and wastewater treatment doesn't reduce sediment at all. So the county will rely heavily on controlling stormwater and restoring streams to help meet phosphorus and sediment goals, and reducing pollution from septic systems to help meet nitrogen goals. The expected tab for meeting the Bay goals could top $2 billion for the county of 540,000 people, said Ronald Bowen, director of the county Department of Public Works.

Even after those goals are met, he said, the county will still have much work left. Besides the Bay TMDL, eight other TMDLs caused by nutrients, sediment, toxic metals, bacteria and other pollutants have been established on local streams, and more are pending. Many of the needed cleanup activities are under way, but meeting the Bay cleanup deadline will be daunting. Efforts to accelerate implementation may be constrained not only by finding new money, Bowen cautioned, but by a lack of consultants and contractors to do the work - especially as other jurisdictions will be seeking those same services. But Anne Arundel officials see benefits, too. The efforts will not only bolster industries that rely on a clean Bay for their livelihood, but restoration programs will generate local jobs.

Fixing stream banks to reduce pollution will also mean that fewer water and sewer lines - which often run near stream channels - will be exposed and broken during storms. And reduced erosion should mean less sediment dredging from rivers used by recreational boaters, said Ginger Ellis, a watershed planner with the Department of Public Works. "We have a fairly large dredging program which is very expensive," she said.

Ellis and Bowen said stream restoration would also protect homeowners whose property is being eroded. Stream health will improve, and cleaner streams will mean fewer health advisories - and swimming closures - at county beaches. Some local governments farther removed from the Bay are also getting ready to gear up for the new WIPs.

In Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, the County Conservation District is trying to ensure that by 2015 every farm has a conservation plan in place and that every cow is fenced out of every stream.

"Is that a huge task?" asked Matt Kafroth, a watershed specialist with the County Conservation District. "With 5,000 farms you better believe it is. Do we have a lot of funding to back that up? At this point, no.

"But strategically, we see this as something we need to address. And I think locally, farmers are understanding that they [should] do it now voluntarily, before the feds come in and make it mandatory."

Indeed, half of the county's 1,400 miles of streams are impaired because of pollution - most because of nutrients and sediment - and getting cows out of the stream is one place to start. But it will take a lot more from farmers, and everyone else, to meet both Bay and local cleanup goals.

Wastewater treatment plants in the county are being upgraded, and the city of Lancaster has embarked on a program to reduce runoff that will cost several hundred million dollars. As part of that, the city in June unveiled a re-engineered park that includes a basketball court constructed with pervious pavement designed to collect rainwater and hold it in an underground cistern that slowly releases it to groundwater, thereby reducing stormwater runoff. Similar improvements are planned at other parks. It won't be known until summer, when the county gets its cleanup goal, how much more it will need to do. But with 60 local governments to deal with, just building awareness of the issues can be a challenge.

Marylou Barton, of the nonprofit Lancaster County Clean Water Consortium, said that at a recent meeting with a number of local government officials, only one jurisdiction had budgeted any funds - $50,000 - to address stormwater issues stemming from the TMDL. "Other municipalities sat up when they heard that because they hadn't budgeted anything for the Chesapeake Bay," she said. Still, she added, "they want to do the right thing. [But] they are really scared about the money."

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service

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Michael Shultz
Editor, Bay Journal News Service