States in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have made strides in reducing pollution in the nation's largest estuary, but many jurisdictions in the six-state region are falling short in implementing practices that cut contaminants from agriculture as well as urban and suburban runoff, a study by environmentalists has concluded.
The study, which is being released Wednesday by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Choose Clean Water Coalition, focuses on two-year commitments made by neighboring states and the District of Columbia. Advocates say the report marks the first time in the history of efforts to restore the bay that they can measure and evaluate how well states have done on short-term commitments — their two-year milestones.
They say the milestones allow the states and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to identify shortcomings and take action before deadlines near for goals to further reduce pollutants in 2017 and 2025.
"States need to plan now for how they will ramp up implementation to address agricultural and urban polluted runoff, not kick the can down the road," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Poor water quality caused by pollution has harmed the crab population, underwater grasses and bay fish. The bay's oyster population has been stuck at less than 1 percent of historic levels since 1994. State-federal efforts to improve the bay water quality stretch back to 1983 with the first "Chesapeake Bay Agreement." After years of missed deadlines, the EPA and six states agreed in 2007 to establish pollution-reduction limits.
President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2009 putting the federal government in charge of a decades-long effort — once led by the states — that has failed so far to restore the watershed.
The report cites progress in reducing pollution from sewage treatment plans. However, the groups are now focusing on pollution from agriculture and urban and suburban runoff in six states, including Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
The groups' analysis noted that Delaware missed both its goals for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus — two key bay polluters — and goals for animal waste management systems, grass buffers and connecting septic systems to wastewater treatment plants. Nitrogen and phosphorus are commonly used in fertilizers.
"We recognize that we do have a ways to go and that the ability to leverage funding and gather the resources that we need during these incredibly difficult economic times have played a factor in our ability to meet the nitrogen and phosphorous reductions," said Brenna Goggin, an environmental advocate for the Delaware Nature Society, in a conference call with reporters.
Maryland met its pollution-reduction goals for last year, the study said. Maryland exceeded its goal in animal waste management systems, forest buffers, grass buffers, urban and suburban polluted runoff management, urban forest buffers and improving pollution from septic systems, it noted. But state environmental advocates said the state fell short on planting trees outside of buffer zones and did not set a goal last year for urban forest buffers.
"Maryland has made tremendous progress," said Alison Prost, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The milestones have let us see what's working and what's not working, but it's clear that we need to pick up the pace and set higher goals if we're going to meet 2017 and 2025."
The goal is to have practices in place by 2017 to achieve 60 percent of water quality improvements and complete the process by 2025.
Virginia met pollution reduction goals for 2013, the study added. Virginia met or exceeded its goals for fencing cattle out of streams and urban stream restoration and was close to meeting the goal for agricultural practices governing nutrient management, pasture management and cover crops. However, the study said it fell short of its goals for forest buffers, conservation tillage, stormwater practices, urban nutrient management and composite urban practices.
"We have to increase the rate of implementation, and that's going to take some new strategies and really a serious commitment to achieving them," said Jacob Powell, executive director of Virginia Conservation Network.
Pennsylvania exceeded goals for reducing phosphorus, but fell short in cutting overall nitrogen pollution, the study said. Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania executive director, said the state was losing momentum on some practices aimed at reducing pollution from agriculture.
West Virginia achieved its overall pollution-reduction goals for 2013, the study said. The state met or exceeded goals for wastewater treatment plants, animal waste management systems and forest buffers, but fell short on agricultural nutrient management and fencing cattle out of streams.
New York, which also is in the bay watershed, was not included in the study, because the Choose Clean Water Coalition doesn't have a coordinator in the state.