Virginia on track to meet Bay cleanup goals, report finds, but budget cuts could hamper progress

By: - August 14, 2020 12:02 am

The James River at the Pony Pasture in Richmond. The river is the source of drinking water for the city. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia is on track to meet its 2025 Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, although lagging state efforts to manage agricultural and stormwater runoff could jeopardize its success, a report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released Thursday said. 

“When we look at what needs to be done, right now the wastewater folks are overachieving,” CBF Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner told the Mercury. “So while we have been, so to say, shading under the umbrella of wastewater achievements to the present, it’s not enough.”

Virginia, along with Maryland and Pennsylvania, is one of the biggest players in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts that have been ongoing since the 1980s. Together, the three states account for almost 90 percent of all pollution that streams into the nation’s largest estuary. 

Since 2010, under the Clean Water Blueprint, bay states have crafted detailed plans to reduce runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, the main causes of pollution in the Chesapeake. This year, the states entered the final phase of the cleanup, attempting to meet reduction targets set for 2025.

Virginia, the Bay Foundation’s 2020 report found, is currently on track in reducing its pollution loads from wastewater treatment plants, which are responsible for more than a quarter of the state’s nitrogen pollution. 

The best progress, said Sanner in a press call Thursday morning, has been seen among facilities in the Shenandoah and Potomac watersheds, with more improvements needed in the industry-heavy James and York watersheds. 

Less rosy are the outlooks for the other major sources of pollution: agriculture, urban and suburban stormwater and septic systems. 

Agriculture, which is responsible for about 70 percent of Virginia’s remaining pollution reductions, and stormwater continue to cause difficulties for policymakers, partly because these types of pollution flow from so many different sources.

“You have to look at what’s coming off … at each farm, each tree, each street,” said Sanner. And while wastewater treatment plants are also subject to rigorous federal requirements, she added, “in agriculture there is very little that is a requirement per se. It’s a broader program, and it’s a more diffuse program, and therefore it is a less assured program.”

Stormwater issues are also rising in importance as population and related development rise. Increases in runoff from expanding urban and suburban areas have already offset most of the stormwater progress made in urban areas that are already regulated on the state level, the Bay Foundation’s 2020 report found. 

And while the General Assembly this spring committed significant funding to addressing water quality issues throughout the commonwealth, some of those gains could be undercut as the legislature seeks to trim its budget due to economic losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A special session to rework the budget, as well as deal with COVID-19 and criminal justice issues, is slated to start Tuesday in Richmond. 

Lawmakers “have been very close-mouthed” about budgetary plans, said Sanner, but bay advocates are hoping that programs funded through bond financing — including wastewater upgrades, assistance to localities for stormwater management and oyster restoration — may weather the cost-cutting storm. 

More at risk is funding devoted to agricultural cost-share programs that offer technical and other assistance to farmers seeking to implement best management practices that will lessen runoff and improve water quality on their lands. The roughly $96 million legislators allotted in the two-year budget to support these programs comes from the General Fund and could be constrained.

“That is where our eyes will be focused,” said Sanner. “The last thing I think any legislator wants is to have a negative effect on our local farm economies.”

The broader picture

Virginia isn’t alone in the challenges it’s facing with bay cleanup. On the Thursday morning press call, CBF Director of Science and Agricultural Policy Beth McGee said that broadly, “states are doing really well on wastewater, but they’re behind in ag and stormwater.”

The dark cloud in the cleanup’s sky continues to be Pennsylvania, which has failed to meet its Clean Water Blueprint commitments and is expected to exceed its nitrogen target by 9 million pounds annually under its most recent plan. 

“We’ve seen some progress, absolutely, but due to Pennsylvania’s shortfall, success is now in jeopardy,” said CBF president Will Baker. 

Earlier this spring, tensions came to a head when Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, along with a coalition including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of their intent to sue Administrator Andrew Wheeler for failing to enforce bay pollution targets for both Pennsylvania and New York. 

Parties attempting to take action against a federal agency are required to wait for 60 days before filing a lawsuit to give agencies time to engage in negotiation and avoid litigation if possible. But the Trump administration has shown little appetite for talks, said both CBF and the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. Wheeler previously called the plans to sue over bay enforcement “frivolous.”

“Unsurprisingly we have heard no response from the Trump administration and are therefore working with our partners to prepare litigation to protect the Bay and force the Trump EPA to do its job,” wrote Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s chief of staff, Michael Kelly, in an email.

Baker said that CBF was also prepared to move forward with legal action.

“My guess is next couple of weeks you’re going to see litigation,” he said.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]