EPA Releases Assessment of Chesapeake Bay Restoration Progress

Evan Isaacson

July 27, 2018

Today, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the Environmental Protection Agency officially released its assessment of Chesapeake Bay restoration progress. This marked the formal conclusion of the multi-year process known as the "midpoint assessment" for the Chesapeake's cleanup plan.

2017 represents the halfway point for the cleanup, at which time state and federal partners were supposed to have reached 60 percent of their final 2025 nutrient and sediment pollution reduction targets. Unfortunately, 2017 will go down as another in a long line of missed deadlines for the Bay.

Several weeks ago, the Chesapeake Bay Program released the official progress data on the 2017 interim pollution reduction targets. The data reveal that for nitrogen, long considered the limiting pollutant in the Bay TMDL cleanup plan, the seven Chesapeake jurisdictions and all sources combined were only a little more than one-third of the way to the final goal, far short of their 60 percent target. Four of the seven Bay jurisdictions – Delaware, Maryland, and especially Pennsylvania and New York – missed the mark.

President Obama signed an executive order in 2009 directing federal agencies to take greater leadership over the Chesapeake's restoration and create greater accountability. The order came after decades of state agreements failed to achieve the pollution reductions they called for. The subsequent creation of the cleanup plan known as the Chesapeake Bay TMDL (short for Total Maximum Daily Load) was supposed to rectify the problem by greatly increasing the accountability of state and federal governments to the 17 million residents in the Bay watershed and, indeed, to all Americans, as the Chesapeake was declared to be "a national treasure."

Several guidance documents released in 2009 and 2010 spelled out the consequences of failure to stay on track. Moreover, EPA was to continually evaluate state progress in reaching individual two-year milestone commitments and assess whether each sector – wastewater, stormwater, agriculture, and septic systems – were subject to sufficient regulatory controls and bolstered by enough programmatic and financial support to reach their targets.

Despite all of this additional transparency, most states have not followed through on the commitments they made, at least not to the extent that would have led them to success in reaching the midpoint pollution reductions required. EPA has also been too lax in imposing the consequences it said it would when the TMDL was created.

The assessments released today demonstrate how effectively the Chesapeake's health is being monitored and how much the EPA and Bay Program scientists, engineers, and other officials know about the sources and fate of all the pollution entering the watershed. It is clear our effort to restore the Bay is not due to a lack of information or understanding about water pollution or how to restore the Bay and its tributaries.

What is missing from all of these assessments and from the Bay cleanup effort writ large is the will to confront lagging actors and impose consequences needed to get them back on track – for the sake of the Bay, its wildlife, and the millions of people who deserve cleaner and safer water. EPA is often referred to as an umpire in the cleanup effort, but writing assessments of what is going wrong without taking any action is a bit like calling balls and strikes without ever calling an out.

With the midpoint assessment now concluded, we know just how far behind we all are in restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Policymakers in all seven jurisdictions should read the new EPA assessments closely, have frank discussions about progress and opportunities missed, and chart a way forward to reach their ultimate pollution reduction goals by 2025. This should happen whether or not the current leadership at EPA steps to the plate and uses the federal enforcement authority it has to hold states to their commitments.

For additional information on the progress made through 2017, see CPR's infographic, "Measuring Progress at Halftime for the Bay," and read EPA's assessments of each state. For more information on some of the major issues and policy decisions surrounding the Bay TMDL, see CPR's Halftime for the Bay webpage, which we'll continue to update through 2019 as states develop their crucial watershed implementation plans to reach their final 2025 targets.

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