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Bay TMDL Progress Report: A Critical Moment

Climate Justice

In April, the Chesapeake Bay Program – a federal-state partnership dedicated to restoring the Bay – unveiled data tracking nutrient and sediment reductions since 2009, the year when the seven Bay watershed jurisdictions committed to new multiyear “milestone” goals in preparation to comply with the impending Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).  With two years remaining until the midpoint assessment for the Bay TMDL, the data show mixed results. 

Before delving in to those results, it is important to note that there are several ways of measuring progress toward compliance with the Bay TMDL.  One must consider (1) the actions and resources committed by state and local governments and other regulated entities; (2) the Bay Program model’s estimated reductions generated by these actions and resources; and (3) the actual improvements in water quality measured through sampling.  While this last measure of progress is ultimately the most important, the Bay Program and jurisdictions subject to the TMDL rely on the Chesapeake Bay Program Watershed Model to provide ongoing estimates of the reductions achieved and for feedback to guide future planning.  And because of the inherent difficulties with modelling (including many reported issues with the current Phase 5.3 model) and the natural lag times between the implementation of a practice and its subsequent outcome, it is also important to consider the policies enacted and resources dedicated by a jurisdiction to achieve future reductions. 

This is the first in a series of posts to explore the progress – measured in all its forms – by each jurisdiction, starting with a look at the watershed as a whole.  First, the bad news:  Bay model data indicate that, overall, we are only 29 percent of the way to the 2017 goal for the reduction of nitrogen pollution.  We have achieved less than one-third of the nitrogen reduction goal about two-thirds of the way to the midpoint assessment.  However, hidden behind this troubling news is a silver lining that, if not for the lack of progress from two states, the remaining jurisdictions in the watershed would be roughly on pace to meet the 2017 goal for nitrogen.  Meanwhile, the story is basically the opposite for phosphorus, the other nutrient targeted by the Bay TMDL, with very positive data on its face obscuring a disconcerting trend. 

According to the model, the seven jurisdictions have already achieved – years early – more than what is required to meet the 2017 goal for phosphorus.  Overall, the watershed jurisdictions have achieved 119% of the needed phosphorus reduction, with four individual states achieving between 130% and 192% of the 2017 goal.  And yet, the results of water sampling revealed by the USGS in December show that phosphorus concentrations are actually increasing over both the short term (at two of the nine tributary monitoring stations in the Bay watershed) and the long term (at three stations – with three stations showing a decrease).  These disparate results once again highlight the need to appreciate the distinction between modelled progress and actual progress.  This is not to disparage the work of the Bay Program, which has committed a significant investment of time, energy, and resources on developing and updating a very sophisticated and useful model.  Instead, it must be understood that models are imperfect tools that produce results only as good as their inputs and assumptions (and substantial ongoing work is devoted to refining these).  Further, as several USGS reports over the last several years make clear, we still have a lot to learn about the timing and mechanisms of phosphorus transport.    

The Bay TMDL has reached a critical moment.  What has made the Bay TMDL so important and distinct from the previous, failed efforts is that it is, or at least can be, an enforceable framework.  Since then, some jurisdictions have at times acted accordingly, using the threat of enforcement and the spirit of regional cooperation to redouble some efforts to restore the Bay.  However, more often than not, most jurisdictions have essentially chosen to pursue business as usual, as if the TMDL were just the latest in a long series of Bay restoration plans with timelines they could blow off.  This series will explore the progress made by some jurisdictions in some sectors and expose inaction elsewhere, highlighting the need for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to act now and not allow the Bay to suffer another year of delay and broken promises.


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