As a 2025 federal deadline for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay looms, officials are talking about pushing it back since the states surrounding the nation’s largest estuary continue to fall short of pollution reduction goals.
Adam Ortiz, the administrator for the EPA’s Region 3, which includes Maryland, said as much Tuesday during a news conference.
“We’re coming up on 15 years when that date was set, and we’ve learned several lifetimes worth of information,” Ortiz said. “Since then, we’ve learned that some things are harder than we thought, and then some things we never anticipated have to be dealt with.”
As a result, there are discussions within the Chesapeake Bay Program, which agreed to the 2025 goal, to “recalibrate the timeline,” said Ortiz, who was appointed last year by President Joe Biden’s EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.
“Historically, people have hesitated saying that 2025 isn’t going to be met as we envisioned, but we’re really interested in keeping it real,” Ortiz said. “The sooner that we speak the truth and plan accordingly, the more successful we’ll be.”
Ortiz’s remarks came after the release Tuesday of milestone reports, which showed only two bay jurisdictions — West Virginia and Washington, D.C. — were on track to meet their 2025 pollution reduction commitments. Maryland, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia all lag behind to varying degrees, according to the reports.
The reports indicated that practices are in place to achieve 49% of the nitrogen reductions called for in the 2025 plan, and 64% of the phosphorus reductions, the EPA said in a news release. Promised reductions in sediment have been achieved.
Nitrogen and phosphorous, which flow into the estuary through fertilizer runoff, wastewater and other sources, fuel the growth of algae in the estuary. As algae dies, it diminishes oxygen in the water, harming marine life and helping to create “dead zones” in the bay. As a result, those nutrients are the key focus of pollution reduction plans like the 2025 pact.
The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Executive Committee, which includes the EPA administrator and governors of all the bay states, is set to meet next Tuesday. The program’s staff committee, which includes Ortiz, will recommend the consideration of a new timeline, he said.
“Our recommendation to them is to take the next year and come up with a series of recommendations for them to update the terms of the agreement for a new date,” Ortiz said.
It would not be the first time that a Chesapeake Bay pollution agreement has fallen short of its promises for restoration. Bay states did not accomplish the nutrient pollution reductions in the Chesapeake 2000 plan, which preceded the current framework. In 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling for the federal government to renew its effort to restore the Chesapeake.
The next year, the EPA released the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, a “pollution diet” describing needed reductions in sediment and nutrients flowing into the estuary. The plan withstood legal challenges, and was incorporated into the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement in 2014.
When the pollution diet was forged, organizers did not foresee a number of developments that would impact the restoration goals, Ortiz said. For one thing, the Conowingo Dam, which was trapping sediment rushing down the Susquehanna River and into the Chesapeake Bay, essentially filled, meaning it could no longer diminish the amount of pollutants headed for the estuary from upstream.
“That’s a new stressor that was not foreseen in 2010,” Ortiz said.
Organizers also failed to effectively account for the impacts of climate change and increasing storm severity, as well as the pace of development and agricultural production, Ortiz said.
“We’ve learned a lot coming up to 2025,” Ortiz said, “but our goal now is to accelerate through 2025.”
On Wednesday, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Hilary Harp Falk called on the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Executive Council to “acknowledge that the partnership is not on track to meet 2025 pollution reduction commitments.”
“It’s time to identify the principal reasons why,” she said. “Finally, we need the partnership to commit to developing a new Chesapeake Bay agreement with a specified timeline that addresses the remaining pollution reductions.”
The nonprofit released its own report Wednesday about the slow progress toward the bay’s 2025 goals, particularly in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, which together account for about 90% of pollution going into the bay, according to the foundation.
Many of the pollution reductions so far have come as a result of equipment upgrades at wastewater treatment plants, but further reductions in agriculture and stormwater runoff will be needed to finish the job, according to the foundation. In Maryland, maintenance woes at Baltimore’s wastewater treatment plants, resulting in millions of pounds of excess nutrients discharged into bay tributaries, will need to be corrected to ensure technological improvements at the plants aren’t in vain, the Bay Foundation said in its report.
The report found that Pennsylvania was the farthest off-track, though recent influxes of state and federal money to help reduce agricultural pollution from the state are reasons for optimism, said Beth McGee, the foundation’s director of science and agricultural policy.
“The scale of the agricultural challenge in Pennsylvania is enormous,” she said. “More than 90% of the remaining reductions in Pennsylvania need to come from agriculture.”
McGee said the Bay Foundation is calling for the EPA to disapprove of Pennsylvania’s latest pollution plan, and step up its efforts to hold the bay states accountable.
The foundation, along with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, sued the EPA in 2020 over its handling of Pennsylvania’s pollution of the estuary. The litigation is ongoing.
“Despite the fact that the states are not on track, the Blueprint provides a framework — one based in science and accountability — that really still makes sense, and can be successful,” McGee said. “But what has been largely missing in recent years is the accountability piece, due in part to EPA’s failure to act.”