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Time is running out for Chesapeake Bay cleanup

At their current pace, the three major states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, responsible for 90% of pollution in the bay, will miss their targets for reducing sediment and nutrient runoff by 2025, said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) on Wednesday. Maryland and Virginia need to step up efforts to address agricultural pollution, and “Pennsylvania remains far off track,” the foundation said.

The six states in the watershed, which extends into West Virginia and New York, agreed in 2010 to restore water quality in the bay and the waterways that feed into it. The so-called clean water blueprint set goals of reducing nitrogen runoff by 25%, phosphorus runoff by 24%, and sediment runoff by 20% by 2025. Less than half of the nitrogen reductions have been achieved with four years remaining before the 2025 target, said the CBF in its annual report.

“Today it is not too late to finish implementing the blueprint, but time is running out,” said Alison Prost, CBF vice president. “Without leadership from the states and EPA holding jurisdictions accountable, the blueprint will be yet another failure.”

Maryland and Virginia were mostly on track to meet their commitments to reduce water pollution, largely as a result of upgrading sewage treatment plants. Still, the states “need a major acceleration of efforts to address agricultural runoff,” said the CBF. Agriculture would be responsible for nearly 70% of the reductions that remain in Virginia, it said.

Pennsylvania, the perennial laggard in CBF reports, was “far behind where it needs to be” to meet the 2025 goals, said the CBF. It said that more than 25,000 miles of streams and rivers in Pennsylvania need attention, and that more than 90% of the state’s remaining pollution reductions must come from agriculture. While farmers were adopting conservation practices, “a massive influx” of funding and expert advice was needed to get back on track to hit the 2025 targets, said the foundation.

Contrary to the CBF assessment, Patrick McDonnell, head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the state “is at an exciting turning point in improving local water quality in the watershed.” Pennsylvania will meet all of its 2025 targets, he said, assuming that there is adequate funding and that the EPA acknowledges pollution reduction measures already in place.

The DEP said Pennsylvania was not getting credit for runoff controls constructed 10 to 15 years ago because they have not been inspected recently. Many of these structural “best management practices” continue to function, it said. Pennsylvania also asked the EPA to credit the full effect of other best management practices rather than pro-rating them. “Some Pennsylvania BMPs affected by cutoff include agricultural nutrient management, livestock and poultry waste management systems, barnyard runoff control, and stormwater management,” said the DEP.

McDonnell based his prediction of success on recent updates to the state’s Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan. The CBF, three states, and the District of Columbia filed suit more than a year ago against the EPA on grounds that the initial Pennsylvania plan was underfunded and would not meet the 2025 goals. “Without holding the Commonwealth accountable, bay restoration plans are certain to fail,” the suit said.

To read the CBF report, “Chesapeake Bay: State of the Blueprint,” click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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