EPA's TMDL for the Chesapeake: One Giant Step Toward a Restored Bay

Yee Huang

Dec. 29, 2010

Today EPA released the final Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which is a cap or limit on the total amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that can enter the Bay from the District of Columbia and the six Bay Watershed states: Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. The Bay TMDL culminates years of cooperation between EPA and these Bay jurisdictions in working toward a new plan to restore the Bay, a vital economic, recreational, and aesthetic resource for this region. This TMDL is the largest and most complex of all such pollutant limits to date, and truly marks the beginning of a new era for Chesapeake Bay restoration. We've seen many plans on paper over the years for Chesapeake restoration, but this one is a much bigger step with a stronger outlook.

Part of today’s release includes EPA’s evaluation of the Bay jurisdictions’ final Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans, which were due on November 29. Throughout this process, EPA has repeatedly emphasized its willingness to let Bay jurisdictions take the lead on restoration efforts, guided by the strategies, plans, and contingent actions described in their Phase I WIPs. The final Bay TMDL and EPA’s evaluation of the plans reflects this willingness, as EPA has established three levels of involvement with Bay jurisdictions:

  • Ongoing Oversight. For jurisdictions that met EPA’s expectations, EPA will carefully review the implementation of the strategies and programs described in the Phase I WIP to ensure that jurisdictions make measurable progress toward achieving the pollutant reductions. This type of oversight applies to all jurisdictions.
  • Enhanced Oversight. Although the states' final Phase 1 WIPs were vast improvements over earlier drafts, EPA still has remaining concerns—albeit relatively minor—with the ability of some states to meet their allocations for specific sectors. Thus, for Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, EPA may consider future backstops if these states do not demonstrate specific, short-term progress. EPA’s backstops may include reallocating reductions to NPDES permitted point sources from voluntary reductions from nonpoint sources.
  • Backstop Allocations, Adjustments, and Actions. For New York and certain sectors in certain states, EPA included backstop allocations, adjustments, and actions in the final TMDL to both meet the target allocations and to increase the assurance that the pollutant allocations would be met. For example, to address stormwater runoff in Pennsylvania, EPA reallocated loads between point sources and nonpoint sources and has committed to reviewing the stormwater permits -- and may object if the permit conditions are inadequately protective of water quality.

In the next week, CPR will also release our evaluation of the jurisdictions’ final WIPs. While EPA’s evaluation focused on specific, technical details, CPR’s evaluation takes a broader look at overall disclosure and accountability. As with both evaluations, however, the true measure of success will be determined in the future as Bay jurisdictions actually implement their plans and provide information on their success and failures. The Bay TMDL is a true milestone for the Chesapeake Bay, and jurisdictions should have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment and ability to follow through with the WIPs. However, EPA must take seriously its role of federal oversight, peaking behind the curtain of these plans to determine what is actually going on, above and beyond what the jurisdictions claim. Despite all the hard work and long hours that went into establishing the Bay TMDL, the hardest work—implementation of the plans themselves—is yet to come.

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