NY's Bay TMDL Progress Report: Ignoring a Worthwhile Investment

Evan Isaacson

June 24, 2015

TMDL.  The first four posts cover the region as a whole, and then Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.  Future posts will explore the progress of the remaining three jurisdictions.                

So far, we have evaluated progress of the three core jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in reducing nutrient and sediment pollution under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL).  These “big three” states and members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission are the biggest contributors to the pollution problem affecting the Bay and, at least in the case of Maryland and Virginia, appear to have the most at stake if the Bay itself is finally restored.  But we now turn to the region’s periphery, where the big challenge may be how to motivate the people and policymakers in the Bay’s hinterlands – such as Upstate New York. 

Whatever their motivation, officials in New York State must get their act together quickly.  Looking at data from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2014 Model run, New York ranks right up there with Pennsylvania as among the biggest laggards in the watershed.  These are the only two states that the Bay Model indicates have not yet achieved the 2017 interim phosphorus reduction goals.  And New York is dead last among states in reducing its nitrogen loads on a percentage basis, which have actually increased since 2009.  The only good news, if it can be referred to as such, is that New York is a fairly small contributor to Bay pollution at about five percent of the total nutrient loads to the watershed.

The relatively small portion of New York State in the Bay watershed is a rural area in the state’s Southern Tier.  The area is heavily forested and agriculture is the predominant “controllable” pollutant sector, representing about 25% of the area.  And even though agriculture contributes more than 40 percent of New York’s nitrogen pollution in the watershed, the state’s Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) calls on the agriculture sector to deliver nearly all of the state’s nitrogen reductions, virtually ignoring the other sectors.  Whether or not it is wise to ask one pollution source sector to shoulder such a disproportionate amount of the work can be debated.  But certainly if New York is choosing to rely so heavily on its agriculture sector to deliver nutrient and sediment reductions then it must ensure that it has a good plan to do so.

Unfortunately, the Bay Model’s 2014 data indicate that, between 2009 and 2014, the state’s agriculture sector has only been able to reduce nitrogen loads by about 1 percent, whereas the 2017 goal is to reduce such loads by about 24 percent.  In other words, the state is less than one-twentieth of the way to its 2017 interim goal with only three years remaining.  As discouraging as this lack of progress is, what may be even more discouraging is that, in the most recent assessment of the state’s commitments under the Bay TMDL, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintained New York’s compliance status at the “ongoing oversight” level – indicating that EPA is relatively unconcerned.  This is truly perplexing, based, not only on the 2014 data from the Bay Program’s Model, but also on EPA’s own assessment.

Among the supposed “achievements” that EPA found in its assessment of New York’s commitments under the Bay TMDL are that it has (five years into the Bay TMDL) recently implemented a pilot project designed merely to count the acres of cover crops planted.  As for the actual planting of cover crops, EPA indicates that the number of acres planted must increase three fold.  And given that this portion of New York is home to the yogurt brand Chobani, one might expect that the state has taken significant actions to date to control agricultural pollution from the many large dairy farms.  Not so, according to the Animal Agriculture Program Assessment recently conducted by EPA.  According to that 2015 assessment, New York is lagging far behind on all five “priority” best management practices for reducing pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

The slow start and lack of progress in New York is personally very discouraging for this author who was born and raised in Upstate New York and spent time hiking, camping, and fishing in and around the Southern Tier, the Adirondacks, the Finger Lakes, and Lake Ontario.  There is so much natural beauty in the region, but also so many impaired waterways there today.  Although known as the “Chesapeake Bay TMDL” the truth is that this legal framework is actually an aggregation of 276 local TMDLs protecting 92 different local waterways.  The people of Upstate New York and the policymakers in Albany need not value the estuarine waters of the Chesapeake up to 400 miles to the south to understand the Bay TMDL – they should look no further than the increasingly degraded lakes and creeks in their own communities to understand why the commitments being made by the State under the Bay TMDL are a very worthwhile investment.

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