West Virginia's Bay TMDL Progress Needs to Accelerate

by Evan Isaacson

Editors’ Note:  This is the sixth in a series of posts on measuring progress toward the 2017 interim goal of the Bay TMDL.  The first five posts cover the region as a whole, and then MarylandPennsylvania, New York, and Virginia, Future posts will explore the progress of the two remaining jurisdictions.

Like New York, the State of West Virginia can seem a bit distant from the Chesapeake Bay and the process of implementing the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL).  But, even though most of the state’s waterways drain into the Ohio River rather than to the Bay, some of the fastest growing counties in West Virginia are those surrounding the Potomac headwaters, and a short drive to the Bay itself.  West Virginia has experienced at least some success to date in reducing nutrient and sediment pollution under the Bay TMDL, but recent information from the Chesapeake Bay Program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) paints a confusing picture of this progress. 

Another similarity between the portions of West Virginia and New York within the Bay watershed is the geography and various sources of pollution.  The share of nitrogen pollution coming from each state’s vast forests and ambient air is nearly identical at about 29 percent of the total (the highest percentage among the seven jurisdictions), and the agricultural sector in each state represents between 40 percent and 50 percent of total nitrogen pollution.  Additionally, West Virginia, like New York, has made the decision to overemphasize reductions – relative to their share of the pollution problem – from the agricultural sector in its state Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) to meet the goals of the Bay TMDL.

West Virginia’s agricultural sector exemplifies the mixed results the state has achieved in meeting the Bay TMDL to date.  For example, according to data from the Bay Program’s 2014 Model run, agricultural nitrogen decreased by just over 7 percent between 2009 and 2014 — that’s most of the way toward the reduction goal of about 9 percent by 2017.  Additionally, EPA found in its 2014 assessment of West Virginia’s two-year “milestones” goals that the agricultural sector met each of its commitments for the 2012-2013 period.  Nevertheless, EPA decided in that 2014 assessment to continue its enhanced oversight of the state’s agricultural sector, hinting at serious concerns. In its most recent assessment this year, EPA renewed that concern, maintaining enhanced oversight of the sector and casting doubt about the ability to install enough best management practices to meet the goals of the Bay TMDL in light of the current levels of personnel and funding resources being dedicated by the state.

The story on urban runoff in West Virginia is almost a mirror image. Urban runoff is the only increasing source of nitrogen or phosphorus in West Virginia, according to 2014 Model data, and pollution from this sector is rising faster in West Virginia than any other state except for Virginia.  But, despite this very concerning data, EPA has decided in its last two assessments of West Virginia’s progress not to downgrade the state from a compliance status of “ongoing oversight” to that of “enhanced oversight” – as is the case for the state’s agricultural sector.  Nevertheless, EPA has encouraged West Virginia to explain how its programmatic milestones related to training and education will provide the pollution reductions it is planning for the stormwater sector and EPA expressed its expectation of much greater efforts from West Virginia in the future to install stormwater filtration and other best management practices to achieve actual pollution reductions on the ground.

Fortunately, like most states, West Virginia has been able to clamp down on nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment plants.  Perhaps learning from the experience of other states that acted to address wastewater pollution following earlier Bay agreements, the state legislature passed legislation shortly after the Bay TMDL went into effect to raise significant funds for upgrades at about a dozen wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Potomac River and its tributaries.  As of June 2015, four of these plants have been upgraded and the remaining upgrades are scheduled to be completed by 2017.  The few upgrades that have been completed to date are already enough to bring the state close to its 2017 nitrogen reduction goal.  Like Maryland and Virginia, the state will achieve more reductions from the wastewater sector than is needed, allowing it to partially cover shortfalls from other sectors, particularly stormwater. 

West Virginia officials deserve a lot of credit for acting swiftly in response to the Bay TMDL and establishing a significant new funding source to support the upgrade of its wastewater treatment plants within the Potomac headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  However, this technology-based, end-of-pipe approach will only take the state so far in meeting its final 2025 goals under the Bay TMDL.  In order to meet these final goals, the state must significantly accelerate its efforts to resolving the problem of pollution runoff from its farm fields and, in particular, from its urban areas.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform