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Redefining Success in the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

The more than three-decade history of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort has been a little like a football game, in which – after a few quarters – the teams get bogged down around the 50 yard line with no score. So the officials move the goalposts closer.

Here’s an example of these goalposts on wheels:  Back in 1987, the bay region states and EPA signed an agreement to reduce nitrogen pollution by 40 percent by the year 2000.  But as the author Tom Horton pointed out in his book, “Turning the Tide,” shortly after the goal was set, “40 percent” was redefined to mean “40 percent of controllable sources,” which arbitrarily excluded half of all nitrogen sources – including from air pollution (although this is controllable) and from New York, Delaware and West Virginia, which had not signed on to the agreement.

With this subtle tweaking of this language, the target for 2000 suddenly moved much closer – essentially requiring a 21 percent reduction in pollution instead of a 40 percent cut. 

  After even that more modest goal was missed, Horton wrote in his book in 2003: “It is unlikely, even if the bay continues for much longer in an unrestored state, that political leaders and decision makers will admit failure.  What is likely is that they, and we who live around the bay, will redefine success and change the concept of ‘restored.’”

All these years later, Horton has proven himself the bay’s oracle.

The most recent redefinition of success in the bay cleanup came in 2010, when EPA and the bay states agreed to a new set of cleanup goals: the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL. It sets a target of 25 percent reduction in nitrogen pollution and a 24 percent cut in phosphorus and threatens penalties to states, but sets no firm deadline to actually achieve these numbers.

I asked EPA’s regional water division director, Jon Capacasa, how the Bay has been doing under the TMDL.

“We are seeing real and sustained progress in our efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution to the Chesapeake Bay,” Capacasa said.  “The TMDL is certainly a key tool to continue that progress.  From 2009 to last year, we are seeing an 8 percent reduction in nitrogen, a 20 percent reduction in phosphorus, and something like a 7.5 percent reduction in sediment. So those are all encouraging trends and we hope to continue that.”

This is good news. But what’s strange is that the EPA Bay Program does not use actual water quality monitoring to measure progress under the TMDL. It bases its numbers in part on computer simulations that may be giving farmers too much credit for allegedly reducing their phosphorus runoff pollution from manure fertilizer. 

Actual water quality monitoring by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that the amount of phosphorus in the bay did not improve 20 percent under the TMDL, but actually worsened between 2009 and 2015. 

I asked Capacasa about this gap between reality – as measured by water quality monitoring – and EPA’s computer simulations, which are being used as the yardstick for measuring the TMDL’s success. 

“New information like the University of Maryland has shared with us certainly will be considered,” Capacasa said. “If our estimates are too rosy, then we certainly want to correct those back to what the data is showing, what the science is showing.  We are very open to assessing all of that information.”

He said that next year, EPA will examine this stubborn persistence of phosphorus pollution as it makes  yet another set of adjustments to the bay cleanup targets and  conducts what it calls its TMDL mid-point assessment.

Let’s hope the agency finally forces the bay states to actually meet their goals instead of playing games with the goalposts.  

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.