A Review of the EPA’s Assessment of Virginia’s Bay Cleanup Progress

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By Neil Saunders

According to the EPA’s recent interim assessment of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia is on track to meet its TMDL targets for both nitrogen and phosphorus, but is off track to meet its targets for sediment. Three out of four sectors- agriculture; wastewater treatment plants and onsite systems; and offsets and trading- are under the lower “ongoing oversight” designation, with the remaining sector- urban/suburban storm water- under the intermediate “enhanced oversight.” According to the EPA’s “Next Steps,” urban/suburban storm water may be upgraded to “ongoing oversight” in 2016 provided Virginia completes certain MS4 (define) permitting requirements.

What do these results mean going forward? At this stage in the overall TMDL process, it is an encouraging sign that Virginia, which contributes significant nutrient levels to the Bay, is on track to meets its 2017 targets for nitrogen and phosphorus. It is also encouraging that Virginia appears close to receiving an upgrade in oversight level for the urban/storm water sector, which would place all of the state’s programs under the lower “ongoing oversight” level. Until all practices are in place (which isn’t expected until 2025), this is generally what we hope to see in all of the Bay States’ interim assessments.

Despite the largely positive results, however, there are still areas where Virginia can improve. Sediment levels remain an issue for the state, and will require additional measures to achieve the necessary reductions targets by 2017. This will likely prove challenging, given the fact that the EPA’s current projections of sediment levels over the past decade are higher than were initially anticipated, meaning more sediment has been entering the Bay than previously thought. Another concern is that, although the EPA’s model projections place the state’s agriculture practices on track to meet the 2017 targets within that sector, the fact that Virginia maintains a voluntary approach to nutrient management makes it difficult to accurately measure. The EPA expects that Virginia will work with the Chesapeake Bay Program Office to “project the necessary pace of voluntary agriculture program implementation to stay on track with nutrient and sediment reduction goals and set milestones accordingly.”

The interim “results” are based largely on models that project future nutrient and sediment levels, and incorporate many activities, or practices, that have not yet been implemented. Unless the states actually follow through on their commitments, many of the positive projections will be unrealized. Therefore, it is crucial that the states continue to take any and all additional measures that are necessary to restore the Chesapeake Bay. There is still a long way to go and a lot more that needs to be done.

The interim assessments were released to for the six Bay States’ 2014-2015 milestones. These assessments, which form part of the EPA’s overall accountability framework under the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, play an integral role in evaluating the progress of the Bay States towards meeting their respective pollution reduction targets, and are used to identify areas of concern that require additional measures to meet those targets.

The EPA and Bay States are currently in Phase II of a three-phase, fifteen year process of the TMDL, which means that they are continuing to work towards implementing practices by 2017 that will meet sixty percent of the total pollution reductions needed to clean the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The third and final phase is to be completed by 2025, and requires 100 percent of the pollution reductions measures to be in place.

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