A rower paddles at sunset on College Creek in Annapolis. Over 18 million residents live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and are impacted by pollution reduction efforts. Photo: Emmett Gartner/CNS

Bay States Won’t Reach 2025 Restoration Goals—Now What?

By Emmett Gartner, Capital News Service

Just days after reports from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found the Chesapeake Bay watershed states are not on track to meet restoration goals by 2025, the leaders of all six states, Washington D.C. and federal partners formally met to address the failure.

The Chesapeake Bay Executive Council held its annual meeting Tuesday in D.C., gathering together governors or other leaders from Maryland, Virginia, D.C., Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York.

Officials began the meeting by commending the overall progress in Bay restoration efforts but highlighted the work yet to be done outlined in the Bay’s “pollution diet”, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).  The TMDL tasks each state and Washington with reducing a set quantity of pollution.

Ann Swanson, director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, told the governors, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and officials from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York, to increase the pace of their conservation efforts.

“Bottom line here is that water quality is improving,” Swanson said. “Have you met water quality standards? No.”

“You have voices that are extremely unique,” she continued. “You’re the commanders in chief, and so if you speak strongly, there are tens of thousands that will respond to you.” 

A report released by the EPA last week said only West Virginia and Washington are on track to meet their pollution reduction objectives.

A similar report conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the lead environmental watchdog for the bay, found that Bay states are on track to reduce nitrogen pollution by 42 percent and phosphorus pollution by 64 percent, with only three years left to achieve the full 100% reduction.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrient pollutants with profound effects on Bay water quality, and a high concentration of them can spur algae blooms, which deprive water of oxygen and introduce harmful bacteria.

Officials at the meeting emphasized  that programs geared towards sustainable farming practices—such as planting trees between farms and bay tributaries—can filter nutrient pollutants in crop fertilizers and animal waste, thereby reducing nitrogen and phosphorus loads.

Improved stormwater filtration is also needed to reduce pollutants to a manageable level, officials said.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said that in a discussion before the council’s public meeting, officials redoubled their commitment to charting a clear path to build and sustain partnerships in restoring the Bay.

“We agreed to ask our principal staff committee to rethink how we celebrate our work through 2025 and beyond,” Regan said. “We need a clear path forward that prioritizes an optimized message for achieving our goals.”

Regan hinted that the council may have to reconsider its 2025 deadline. 

“We’ve all acknowledged that 2025 is fleeting in terms of achieving our goal,” he said. We’ve tasked our staff to take a look at what we can achieve between now and 2025. What are we going to do to get back on track?”

Hilary Harp Falk, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she hopes the plan the council is promising will include more conservation spending and greater pollution enforcement.

“We need realistic plans and a significant increase in funding and accountability,” Falk said in an interview with  Capital News Service after the meeting. “The great news is that the council has an accountability framework. They just need to continue to use it.” 

Hogan said his administration will hold industrial polluters accountable. Hogan pointed to the failures of two wastewater treatment plants owned by Baltimore that led to the release of untreated discharge that motivated Maryland to file a lawsuit against the city.

“This has underscored the importance of making sure that our restoration investments are well maintained, and continue to perform as designed throughout their lifespan,” he said.

Youngkin immediately acknowledged his state’s failure to reach its goals, but blamed the previous administration. Instead of committing to the immediacy of restoring the Bay, he called the 2025 deadline an “artificial expiration date.”

Falk rejected Youngkin’s response.

“We needed to create some hard metrics,” she said. “So, 2025 is important for a number of reasons.”