For decades, politicians, advocates, and the press have lamented America's aging, deteriorating, or even failing infrastructure and called for change – usually to little avail. Perhaps another strategy should be to celebrate success wherever we see it and spotlight achievements to demonstrate that we can change the situation if we choose key public investments over apathy and short-sighted budget cuts. Just a few weeks ago, residents and advocates in the Chesapeake Bay region heard one such infrastructure success story.
In mid-June, Shawn Garvin, the Mid-Atlantic regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stood beside George Hawkins, CEO of DC Water, and other officials at the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant to applaud the completion of the plant's upgrade with more than a billion of dollars' worth of advanced pollution control technology, making it the largest advanced wastewater treatment plant in the world. Garvin also referenced a new EPA analysis showing that the wastewater sector for the Bay region as a whole had met its final 2025 nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals of the Chesapeake Bay restoration framework, known as the Bay TMDL (short for "Total Maximum Daily Load") a full 10 years early.
Given that this story appears to be an outlier in an otherwise dreary outlook for America's transportation and water infrastructure and pretty much the lone success story for restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, it might be worth a closer examination of how we got here and what lessons might be available to other jurisdictions.
The completion of the Blue Plains wastewater plant upgrade was the result, in part, of over $100 million in grant funding from Maryland and its Bay Restoration Fund, as the plant serves over a million customers in Maryland. The Maryland General Assembly created the Bay Restoration Fund in 2004 with significant bipartisan support. Backed by a $2.50 monthly fee on most households (later increased to $5 per household in 2012), this minor water bill surcharge has generated roughly $1 billion, more than three quarters of which is used to ensure that each of the 67 major, publicly owned wastewater treatment plants in the state are upgraded with advanced nutrient removal technology. Today, three-quarters of these plants (and a handful of smaller ones) have been upgraded, with the remaining plants expected to be updated in the next two years.
This infrastructure investment decision is not only almost singlehandedly responsible for allowing the state to remain on pace with its interim nutrient reduction requirements under the Bay TMDL, it has also pumped $1 billion dollars into the local economy, creating and sustaining hundreds of high-paying design, engineering, and construction jobs. These capital projects don't create the widgets and gizmos that we consume and throw away, but are instead are the exact type of investments in infrastructure that last for generations and produce benefits right now for our health and our environment.
An analysis of EPA water pollution discharge data reported by wastewater plants shows that Maryland is now among the national leaders, both in terms of the number of plants discharging at enhanced nutrient removal levels (defined as a nitrogen effluent below 3.0 milligrams per liter) and in terms of the fleet-wide average nitrogen effluent levels, behind only Florida in each case.
In fact, the median nitrogen effluent level of a major wastewater facility in Maryland is roughly two-thirds lower than for the nation as a whole. And the Bay TMDL likely has something to do with this: Each of the seven Chesapeake Bay watershed jurisdictions, with the exception of New York, are well below the national average nitrogen pollution level, with Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Virginia joining Maryland near the top of the list.
In the Bay watershed as a whole, nitrogen pollution from the wastewater sector has fallen by more than half since 1985, even as the population has increased by millions, and has fallen by almost a third just since 2009. And nitrogen pollution from wastewater will continue to fall significantly in the coming years as Bay states, and Maryland in particular, continue to upgrade additional plants.
As dangerous algal blooms and dead zones again infect our coastlines, estuaries, lakes, and streams, we are reminded of just how important it is to upgrade and modernize our nation's wastewater infrastructure. The experience in Maryland and other Bay states is a success story that needs to be told and an infrastructure investment model that needs to be exported and replicated throughout the United States.