The multi-state plan to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay could be in danger of failing, according to a new report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. 

States within the Chesapeake watershed may fall short of their pollution reduction targets by the 2025 deadline set in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, says the foundation, an independent non-profit that works to restore and preserve the bay.

While wastewater treatment plants in the three states responsible for 90% of the bay’s pollution – Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia –have largely stepped up with necessary upgrades to reduce nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and sediment in the bay,  governments need a “major acceleration” of efforts to address agricultural pollution as well as a “concerning rise” in stormwater runoff from urban and suburban areas, the foundation said in its assessment released Jan. 5.  

The blueprint, established in 2010, is a federal and state plan to have programs and practices in place that will result in a restored bay. It falls under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but each state has specific water quality reduction targets.  It includes one of the most aggressive total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) in the nation and includes enforcement mechanisms for entities that do not comply. 

From 2009 to 2020, watershed states put in place practices that would reduce nitrogen reaching the bay by approximately 44%, leaving more than half the work to be accomplished in four years. Most of the remaining improvements need to be in the agricultural sector, but the foundation pointed to a net loss of 270,000 acres of forest to development between 2014 and 2018, which has contributed to stormwater runoff generated by new roads, buildings, and hard surfaces. However, so far state regulator have not “adequately accounted” for this increase in stormwater pollution. 


Falling Behind

Historically, Pennsylvania has lagged behind in meeting its commitments, and its first draft of a Phase III implementation plan fell well short of meeting nitrogen reduction goals and was underfunded by $300 million annually, according to the foundation.

Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Environmental Protection has revised its Phase III plan, outlining how it will fully meet its nutrient and sediment pollution reduction goals by 2025. “With all counties on board and unprecedented progress underway, Pennsylvania is at an exciting turning point in improving local water quality in the watershed,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McConnell. 

EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz said in a statement that the agency is reviewing Pennsylvania’s modified plan. However, “EPA is serious about taking greater federal action to promote progress in Pennsylvania” if the amended plan does not meet 2025 cleanup targets or provide confidence to meet its goals, Ortiz said. Possible tools at EPA’s disposal include more oversight of construction permits, increased inspections and enforcement actions, he said.  

Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia sued EPA in September 2020 to force the agency to be more aggressive in requiring Pennsylvania and New York State to effectively meet the blueprint’s reduction goals. 

In an emailed statement, Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary, says the state has made “steady progress over the last seven years.” Some of that progress has been aided by $6.5 billion in state budgets during that timeframe to keep on track with cleanup goals, he says, “but more actions and partnerships are needed throughout the entire watershed.” 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) supports legislation in the state General Assembly to help local communities fund resilience projects for green infrastructure and pollution. 

But Alison Prost, foundation vice president for environmental protection and restoration, says EPA Administrator Michael Regan has yet to appoint a permanent Chesapeake Bay program leader. To date, he “has failed to take meaningful action," she says. "EPA must hold all jurisdictions accountable.”