Maryland's Bay TMDL Report: A Tale of Two States

Evan Isaacson

June 22, 2015

Editors’ Note:  This is the fourth in a series of posts on measuring progress toward the 2017 interim goal of the Bay TMDL.  The first three posts cover the region as a whole, and then Pennsylvania and Virginia. Future posts will explore the progress of the remaining four jurisdictions.                

Judging from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s modeling of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland is a tale of two states when it comes to reducing its polluting emissions.  On the one hand, the state is clearly lagging in reducing nitrogen pollution, one of two main contributors to the algal blooms that lead to “dead zones” in the Bay.  On the other hand, it has made some progress. Indeed, Maryland’s experience appears to be quite similar to that of Virginia, a leader in reducing nitrogen to date, in that it owes most of its success to significant early investments in wastewater treatment plant upgrades.  Like Virginia, Maryland has committed well over $1 billion to installing advanced technology on its major wastewater treatment plants, albeit a few years later than Virginia.

In an important respect, however, Maryland is unlike Virginia, or any state for that matter.  Maryland has crafted its Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) for meeting the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) with an ambitious “all of the above” strategy that seeks significant pollution reductions broadly across each main sector.  Unfortunately, the data so far indicates that this strategy has yet to really bear fruit, and it is too early to tell if it will in time for the 2025 TMDL deadline.

Ambition has been in evidence in Maryland’s plan since the Obama Administration established the Bay TMDL in 2010.  In fact, former Governor O’Malley’s first WIP called for implementing practices to achieve 70 percent of its reduction targets by 2017, not just the 60 percent required, and it also anticipated implementing all practices by 2020, instead of 2025.  Alas, Maryland quickly backtracked, perhaps after understanding just how difficult a task this might be. 

As previously discussed, Maryland crafted its WIP with the intention of spreading the burden of reducing nitrogen relatively widely among the various pollution source sectors.  Whereas one might expect state officials to “load up” on relatively cheap sectors (generally, agriculture) or relatively simple sectors (generally, wastewater), Maryland crafted a plan that calls upon each of the four main sectors to contribute at least 10 percent of the state’s overall nitrogen reduction; most jurisdictions only plan for major reductions from one or maybe two sectors.  In some respects, Maryland’s plan is smart: it ensures that pollution reductions are widely distributed geographically across many sub-watersheds, with costs spread among the greatest number of people and businesses.  The plan also attempts to address the most difficult pollution source sectors, like septic systems, which require costly and politically unpopular upgrades, and urban runoff, which requires capital intensive planning and inter-jurisdictional cooperation.

Unfortunately, with a plan this complex, results have come slowly.  Putting aside phosphorus pollution, which the Chesapeake Bay Program Model indicates that nearly every jurisdiction has significantly reduced, only one sector (wastewater) in Maryland achieved in 2014 even half of the progress required to meet the 2017 interim deadline for the Bay TMDL.  Meanwhile, the agriculture sector was only about a third of the way toward the 2017 goal, progress on septic systems has been even slower, and stormwater runoff has actually increased since 2009.  Cast in that light and considering only what the Model’s data tell us, Maryland’s performance looks pretty dismal.

However, unlike Pennsylvania, Maryland can point to some silver linings around this darker data.  First and foremost, while not yet evident in the 2014 data, Maryland’s wastewater sector is on the verge of delivering substantial reductions of nitrogen pollution comparable to that achieved by Virginia.  Thanks to the creation in 2004 of the Bay Restoration Fund and the doubling of the Bay Restoration Fee in 2012, Maryland is scheduled to finish upgrading its 67 major wastewater treatment plants just about in time for the 2017 deadline.  The nitrogen-removing upgrades to be completed in the next two years are so substantial that this sector alone is estimated to more than cover the shortfalls in every other sector by 2017, just as in Virginia.

Even in the stormwater sector – the only sector where nitrogen pollution continues to increase – the state and many counties have done much of the legwork needed in terms of enacting legislation, raising funds, and building programmatic capacity.  Contrary to popular belief, Maryland did not “repeal the rain tax,” but instead enacted a law that actually strengthens the accountability of local stormwater management programs.  And even though the stormwater permits issued by the state have some serious legal deficiencies, if properly implemented by local governments and enforced by the state — granted, a big “if” — the permits could bring about significant pollution reductions.

However, despite some promising signs, Maryland has its work cut out for it if it is to expand progress beyond the wastewater sector and meet the overall goals of the Bay TMDL by 2025.  Nitrogen reductions from the agriculture sector were behind schedule through 2014 and EPA’s own assessment casts doubt on the progress that the Bay Model is showing on phosphorus.  As for septic systems, Maryland has established by far the most significant reduction targets for this sector among states and, despite modest success in bringing down nutrient loads, is so far behind that the State must reevaluate whether it needs to shift some of its reductions planned for this sector elsewhere.

Marylanders have a lot to lose if the state is unable to restore the Bay.  Not only is the Bay deeply embedded in the state’s identity and a significant part of its economy and culture, but state officials have spent decades writing laws and raising funds to save the bay.  And despite some promising programs today and big pollution reductions coming, Maryland is behind schedule in the short term and has some big questions to answer about the long term.

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