For years, Chesapeake Bay has been the subject of dire reports: dwindling fish, crab and oyster populations, loss of native underwater grasses, eroding shorelines, murky water and algae blooms caused by excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. Now, environmental advocates say the bay is slowly but surely progressing toward good health.

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The latest crab dredge survey, in winter 2015, showed modest improvements in the bay’s blue-crab population, and the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional coalition that includes federal and state agencies, NGOs and academic institutions, noted that, in 2014, underwater grass acreage marked a second year of positive growth.

Water quality is improving—in places, the water is clear—and nutrient and sediment loads have declined.

Traditionally, wastewater treatment plants, often called “point sources” of water pollution, have been the low-hanging fruit in efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus. Additionally, many facilities, such as D.C. Water’s Blue Plains advanced wastewater treatment plant, have been working for decades to meet increasingly stringent limits. In Baltimore, the Back River wastewater treatment plant now has underway one of the nation’s largest enhanced nutrient removal (ENR) construction programs.

But the bay’s journey toward recovery is tenuous. “There is still a long way to go,” says Harry Campbell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) of Pennsylvania.

CBF still gave the bay a D+ in its latest “State of the Bay” report. The parts of Pennsylvania that fall within the watershed are not meeting milestones toward pollution reductions, and, until recently, Big Ag and the National Association of Home Builders were calling for an overhaul of the entire plan to clean up the Chesapeake.

The real problem, many sources say, rests with agricultural waste and stormwater runoff, two leading examples of what are often called “non-point sources,” which are harder to quantify and set limits on.

The progress that has been made at the bay is due, largely, to a “pollution diet” implemented in 2010. The diet calls for significant reductions in nutrient loads. Under the Chesapeake Bay watershed total maximum daily load (TMDL) program, wastewater utilities, farmers, and suburban and urban areas are being asked to reduce their loads of nitrogen and phosphorus, the two primary drivers of water pollution.

Baltimore Steps Up

In 2015, Dodge Data & Analytics identified the Back River construction program as one of the 10 largest water-wastewater projects under construction in the U.S.

“They are already doing a very good job of nutrient removal because, back in the 1990s, the city did initial modifications to be able to remove nitrogen and phosphorus,” according to Per Struck, vice president at Baltimore-based Whitman, Requardt & Associates (WRA), which served as one of the the city’s design consultants on the denitrification filter facility,

Since the introduction of Maryland’s bay-restoration and TMDL program, most facilities in Maryland have been gradually upgrading their plants to meet the new requirements, Struck says.

The TMDL requires the 180-million-gallon-a-day (mgd) plant to limit nitrogen concentrations into the Back River from the current 8 mg/L per day to 3 mg/L per day by 2017 while maintaining the current phosphorus concentrations at 0.2 mg/L.

The program includes two enhanced nutrient-removal projects. The first, valued at approximately $280 million, includes the construction of a denitrification filter system with 52 deep-bed sand media filters that will add one more step of nutrient removal into the treatment process at the plant, as well as a pumping station that can handle 300-mgd flows.

Joe Chaklos Jr.—a senior project manager with Archer Western, the general contractor on both ENR projects—says that, currently, a 144-in.-dia pipeline circles the “entire run of the plant.”

A structure will be built around the pipe, and the pipe will be cut around the new filter system so that water can flow through the additional denitrification process. Chaklos says, “We are cutting the pipe, allowing the flow to go through the filter system, and then pushing the water back out the pipe,” when it goes through the final steps before being discharged into the river.

Chaklos says the deep-bed denitrification filtration system is “one of the world’s largest” and is on schedule to complete in November 2016. The second project, valued at approximately $285 million, will add a third 40-mgd activated sludge plant to enhance the plant’s nitrification capacity, especially during cold-weather operation. It will consist of a 400-ft x 700-ft reactor building, including open aeration tanks, blowers, mixers and piping, and 12 new secondary clarifiers.

The new treatment plant is expected to be complete in May 2017, slightly behind schedule because of difficult weather over the past few months. Additionally, the plant is being built over a foundation of 700 auger-cast piles. “They’ve taken a little bit longer than expected” to install, Chaklos notes.

The scope and size of the construction on site has been substantive. At peak, about 600 workers were plugging away. Many were recruited from local neighborhoods and trained. However, even though some were retained to continue with Archer Western, few took up the company’s offer to join an apprenticeship program.

The team set up two on-site concrete batch plants, which manufactured 80,000 cu yd of concrete for the denitrification filter project and 100,000 cu yd for the additional treatment plant.

KCI did the design work for the treatment plant and its associated facilities. Louis Berger Group is the construction manager on the first project. JMT is the construction manger on the second.

The Maryland Dept. of Environment (MDE) is funding almost all of the ENR work, says Back River’s plant manager, Nick Frankos. “The state pretty much covered most of the cost” of the required upgrades.

Tough Requirements

Back River is just one example of wastewater treatment plants that have been working actively to meet the more stringent requirements established by the TMDL. Sources say that, of the more than 40,000 TMDLs across the country, the Chesapeake Bay watershed TMDL is the most complex—and largest—in the U.S. The bay watershed covers some 64,000 sq miles and runs through parts of six states, from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Norfolk, Va.

“The Chesapeake Bay program is something that is unique … There are so many states that are tributary to the Chesapeake Bay [that] this presents a unique challenge with regards to interstate coordination and planning,” says Greg Duncan, director of watershed studies at T&M Associates, Bethlehem, Pa.

Moreover, the program is one of the first to include an accountability framework. Before the TMDL was finalized in 2010, restoration efforts had been going on for some 25 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But those efforts were largely ineffective because they were voluntary, not mandated.

The Chesapeake TMDL has been described as the first large TMDL “with teeth,” experts say. Counties and localities are required to develop water implementation plans—often with the help of consultants, such as  T&M—and meet aggressive two-year milestones.

If jurisdictions do not meet their commitments, federal agencies can take punitive actions, such as withholding funds.

For example, in Pennsylvania, which has struggled to meet its targets, EPA has withheld $2.9 million in federal funding for Chesapeake Bay-related activities and grants for pollution reduction projects.

Duncan says Pennsylvania has its own unique challenges not shared by states such as Maryland and Virginia, both of which have developed countywide watershed implementation plans. This measure enables them to have dedicated teams at the county level and, in general, benefit from a more robust resource base.

In Pennsylvania, individual jurisdictions are required to develop their own plans, usually at the local level. “Local government, of course, is going to be beset with a lot of other issues,” Duncan observes. There is a learning curve for localities, in addition to fewer resources and knowledge about how to put together a plan “that would be actionable and effective,” he says.

For the most part, wastewater treatment plants in Pennsylvania are on target or already meeting their pollution reduction goals. But farms and urban and suburban communities are a different story.

A January 2016 report from the Dept. of Environment Protection (DEP) and other state agencies asserted that, although Pennsylvania spent some $146.6 million combined state and federal funding on programs to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution, “We are still not achieving our targeted reduction goals.”

The Pennsylvania DEP released a so-called “reboot” plan to clean up its share of the Chesapeake in January, calling for more technical assistance from federal agencies and more funding.

But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says the $32.7-billion 2016-17 budget, released by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in February, is inadequate. “While this ‘rebooted’ effort establishes a framework for success, we do not see enough resources in the governor’s budget proposal to ensure that success,” CBF’s Pennsylvania Executive Director Campbell says. 

Pennsylvania has specific challenges, he adds. For instance, in its portion of the watershed, the Keystone State has an estimated 33,000 farms, far more than any other state. Additionally, the watershed has 26 MS4 communities, which contribute to stormwater runoff.

For farms and MS4 communities, the best way to reduce animal waste and stormwater runoff is through what has been termed best management practices (BMPs) in green infrastructure techniques, Duncan says. BMPs might include constructed wetlands, bioretention and other infiltration practices. “These have a great effect from the standpoint of not only dealing with site runoff, but, also, it lessens the amount of volume in a peak flow rate that actually gets into” rivers and streams and other bay tributaries, he notes.

Other BMPs include projects to repair stream banks that have been eroded by extreme weather, Duncan says. The degradation of these banks through climate change-induced storms has led to more sediment and pollutants to enter streams and rivers.

Restoring the riverbanks using engineered materials to create stability, which over time would help foster plant and root growth. Roots and sediment along stream banks often hold nutrients and sediment within the root system, providing natural protection against water pollution Duncan explains.

Legal Challenge

Still, there is opposition to many of these practices and to the TMDL itself. The Farm Bureau Federation and a coalition of other groups, including the National Association of Home Builders, challenged the TMDL, saying the EPA does not have the authority under the Clean Water Act to develop a TMDL. They also claimed the pollution and waste-load allocations were based on faulty science.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July upheld the TMDL and the EPA’s authority to issue it. The groups subsequently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case; however, in February, the high court refused their request, allowing the lower-court ruling—and the TMDL—to stand.

Some groups—such as the Coalition for an Affordable Bay Solution, a Pennsylvania-based single-issue organization made up largely of agricultural interests—is calling for a credit trading program that would provide more credits to any entity, including private-sector companies, that addresses the pollution problem by directly treating animal waste.

Direct treatment could include building traditional systems, such as anaerobic digesters or other treatment processes. The coalition adds that the state is underrepresenting the true costs for compliance and that some of the widely considered and discussed BMPs might not be as effective as treating agricultural waste.

But CBF’s Campbell disputes that. He says Pennsylvania already has a nutrient credit program and that any entity, private or non-profit, can take advantage of it. But simply addressing animal waste using traditional treatment processes is costlier and does not address broader problems that some of the shoreline restoration and green BMPs do. Ultimately, BMPs reduce the amount of waste and pollution that enters streams and rivers from a variety of sources, not just farms, he says.

Some wastewater utilities are finding a middle ground and setting up cost-sharing programs to help pay farmers to develop practices, such as fencing to prevent animals from entering streams or other manure management systems.

Radhika Fox, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Water Alliance, says cooperative efforts between agriculture and wastewater utilities—two groups once sharply at odds with each other—are “one of the most exciting things to happen in water” in recent years. The alliance is working to develop a framework that would enable more cooperation between farmers and wastewater utilities in Illinois, she adds, although the group is not currently active in a similar way in the Chesapeake.

Meanwhile, signs of recovery are slowly but surely emerging. Young striped-bass populations are growing, and adult female blue crabs and migrating American shad are returning in larger numbers. The abundance of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake rose 26% between 2013 and 2014, representing 41% of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 185,000-acre goal. In the latest “Bay Barometer” report, Nick DiPasquale, the program’s director, said, “We are seeing positive results from our efforts to restore balance to an important ecosystem that has suffered decades of damage. We must sustain and step up our efforts if we are going to succeed in the long run.”