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Halfway to cleanup deadline, Chesapeake Bay hits goals for phosphorus, sediment, but misses nitrogen target

Halfway to a 2025 cleanup deadline, the Chesapeake Bay is on track to meet goals for reduced phosphorus and sediment pollution, but has missed a target for nitrogen contamination.

That’s according to a Chesapeake Bay Program analysis of pollution controls put in place since 2009 in Maryland and six other jurisdictions in the Chesapeake watershed.

Officials at the bay program, an office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based in Annapolis, credited technological upgrades at wastewater treatment plants and efforts to reduce runoff from farmland among factors that contributed to improvements.

But Jim Edward, the program’s acting director, said governments across the bay watershed will have to accelerate pollution reductions to meet a goal of restoring the bay’s health within the next seven years.

“As we move forward to 2025, it is imperative that we all increase our efforts, especially in reducing nitrogen pollution across all sectors,” he said in a statement.

The bay program’s computer simulations show nitrogen loads in the Chesapeake and its tributaries fell by 11 percent from 2009 to 2017. But the 253 million pounds of nitrogen in the waters was 15 million pounds above a goal established under a multistate and federal bay cleanup partnership.

Over the same period, phosphorus pollution fell 21 percent and sediment levels dropped by 10 percent.

The targets come from the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, put in place in 2010. The blueprint guides Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia toward reducing the loads of pollutants that wash into waterways.

It set a 2017 deadline for those jurisdictions to put into place 60 percent of the practices needed to restore the bay, and a 2025 deadline to complete the restoration.

Beth McGee, director of science and agricultural policy for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the pollution reductions are encouraging. But she added that it will be more difficult to make progress in the years ahead, because much of the gains to date come from big-impact projects such as sewage treatment plant improvements.

“It is no small feat that the region, as a whole, met its phosphorus and sediment goals,” she said. “However, success in upgrading sewage treatment plants masks serious gaps in reducing pollution from agriculture and urban runoff.

“Unless efforts to tackle these sources are accelerated, we will not achieve the 2025 goals,” she said.

McGee also warned that President Donald J. Trump’s administration threatens to set back progress.

Trump has twice proposed virtually eliminating the bay program office, though Congress has refused to pass the budget cuts. The Trump EPA has also rolled back some regulations restricting air emissions from power plants and vehicles — pollution responsible for about a third of the nitrogen that ends up in the bay.

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