Virginia's Bay TMDL Progress Report: A Complete Picture

Evan Isaacson

June 17, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts to explore progress in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, as reflected in recent data from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s elaborate computer model of the Bay, which accounts for what the states are actually doing to reduce pollution. Read the first post, taking a look at the overall region’s progress, here.

Judging solely from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Watershed Model, the Commonwealth of Virginia is doing a pretty good job of reducing its pollution “contribution” to the Bay. The most recent data (2014) from the Model indicate that the Commonwealth has achieved 97.6 percent of its nitrogen reduction goal for 2017 and 150.4 percent of its phosphorus reduction goal, three years ahead of schedule.

Virginia’s experience exemplifies two themes common among the Bay jurisdictions: (1) the Bay has reaped the benefits of actions taken long before the creation of the Bay TMDL; and (2) the vast majority of progress made under the Bay TMDL is the result of “first generation” Clean Water Act methods (traditional end-of-pipe stuff). The key question confronting Virginia and its regional partners is whether they will develop the “second generation” mechanisms needed to rein in urban and agricultural runoff in time to meet the Bay TMDL’s ultimate goals in 2025.

To begin, a little background is required. Nutrient and sediment pollution in the Bay comes from several main source sectors, the most important of which for state policymakers include agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, and urban runoff, often referred to as stormwater. These sectors are not all equal, and it’s much easier to reduce pollution from some sectors than others. That’s partly why the biggest success story in Virginia, really the biggest success for the entire Bay TMDL, is Virginia’s wastewater sector.

Of all the sectors in each of the Bay TMDL jurisdictions, Virginia’s wastewater sector is estimated by the Model to be responsible for nearly half of the nitrogen reductions between 2009 and 2014 (and more than half of the net reduction if you include sectors where pollution is actually increasing). To its credit, the Commonwealth recognized the importance of funding an upgrade of its wastewater treatment plants back in 1997 and created the Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF). Since 1998, WQIF has distributed more than $740 million as part of 35 percent to 90 percent cost share grants with 63 wastewater plants, for a total investment of more than $1.6 billion. Because of this early commitment to tackling these point sources, the Commonwealth has built itself a substantial cushion to work with in case of under-attainment from other sectors.

Whether you call them “smart” or “lucky,” the Commonwealth’s policymakers have taken advantage of the fact that a comparatively large percentage of Virginia’s nutrient pollution comes from wastewater treatment plants. This is not to imply that reductions from this sector come cheap. But decades of scientific, technical, and policy research have focused on solving the relatively straightforward problem of wastewater treatment plant effluent. Virginia chose to focus its efforts disproportionately on the upgrade of these plants, which contributed less than one-third of its nitrogen pollution in 2009 but which the Commonwealth is relying on for nearly half of its nitrogen reductions.

As for urban and agricultural runoff – a more intractable problem in the watershed – Virginia has experienced more mixed results. If it is to reach its overall 2025 goals, it will have to take on this more difficult challenge. In fairness, the Commonwealth has had a relatively longstanding commitment to the installation of agricultural best management practices (BMPs) and has reduced nutrient loads from this sector by more than any other jurisdiction on both a percentage and absolute basis.

However, while the Bay Model shows that Virginia is roughly on pace to meet its 2017 goal for agriculture, the Commonwealth’s own analysts have concluded that there’s a funding problem ahead. By their calculation, the ongoing levels of tax credits and cost-share resources may not be enough, and much greater funding is projected to be needed on the ground for the relevant agencies and Soil and Water Conservation Districts to write nutrient management plans, market BMPs, and monitor and verify claimed reductions.

Unfortunately, Virginia is going to need to rely on the significant reductions from the wastewater sector and modest reductions from agriculture to help cover major shortfalls in the septic and stromwater sectors, where the Commonwealth is woefully behind. Nitrogen pollution from stormwater has risen faster in Virginia than in any other jurisdiction, and this nitrogen load was more than a million pounds greater in 2014 than 2009. EPA downgraded the Commonwealth’s urban sector to “Enhanced Oversight,” in a previous assessment of Virginia’s progress, but neglected to downgrade it further in the 2014 assessment despite the massive scope of the problem.

Several local jurisdictions made the difficult choice years ago to establish stormwater utility fees, but the Commonwealth had failed, until very recently, to simply reissue new municipal stormwater permits that incorporate the Bay TMDL’s requirements. Now, with permits in place, new stormwater regulations in effect, local stormwater management programs established – many funded by sizable stormwater fees – and with the Commonwealth kicking in matching grants from the newly created Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, Virginia may finally be in a position to at least reverse course and start to bring down urban runoff pollution.

The Commonwealth will be challenged to even bring its urban nitrogen runoff back to where it started in 2009 by the 2017 midpoint assessment, and the same may be true for nitrogen pollution from septic systems. Thanks to early and substantial commitments to upgrading the Commonwealth’s fleet of wastewater treatment plants and, to a lesser extent, various agricultural programs, Virginia appears well positioned overall heading into the 2017 midpoint assessment, but it’s got its work cut out for it if it’s to achieve the 2025 goals.

Future posts will explore the progress of the remaining six jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Read More by Evan Isaacson
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Chesapeake Virginia TMDL
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