Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Conservation Districts Working Towards a Cleaner Bay

At the October 7th 2016 meeting of the Potomac Roundtable the Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources for the Chesapeake Bay Russ Baxter reviewed Virginia’s Conservation Districts costs and accomplishments towards achieving our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, mandated reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, septic systems, air pollution and other sources have impaired the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. These pollutants cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom.

The EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

Virginia created a plan called the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) of how they intend to achieve their assigned pollution reduction goals. These plans lay out a series of pollution control measures that need to be put in place by 2025 to achieve the pollution reduction goals. While it will take years after 2025 for the Bay and its tributaries to fully heal, EPA expects that if  the pollution control measures are in place by 2025 the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem can heal itself.

To make the process manageable, EPA reviews Virginia’s progress every two years against what they call milestones -short-term goals. So far Virginia has met their state-wide milestone targets for nitrogen and phosphorus, but failed to meet its state-wide target for sediment. However, the Commonwealth presented plans to “catch up” and meet the important 2017 targets to the EPA.

The easiest targets for reduction have been taken.  Virginia has completed wastewater treatment plant improvements and expansions. In total Virginians will have spent about $2 billion from 1998-2017 to upgrade the waste water treatment plants in the watershed. Half the money came from the state and the other half came from the increased sewer rates for residents. That was expensive, but easy to achieve reductions.

The remaining areas for reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment for the 2025 goals are in the agricultural, suburban and urban storm water management. These are harder targets to hit because the sources of pollution in these areas are non-point source pollution (NPS), diffuse sources of pollution. These pollutants do not come out of a pipe, but are carried to streams and rivers by runoff of rain and snowmelt. Reducing these non-point source pollution are a major part of the work of the state's Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

The way to reduce non-point source pollution on the environment is to control stormwater and implement what is called “best management practices” (BMPs).  Virginia made great progress towards the EPA goal in management of livestock. A huge program carried out by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts to induce all animal operations to fence all pastures to exclude all livestock from rivers and streams and provide alternate sources of water for the animals away from rivers and streams. This is being accomplished by the state paying for 100% of the fencing for projects approved in the first two years and 80% combined with federal money for current projects.

In total, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts will have provided technical assistance worth $178,000,000 and financial incentives (paying for all or part of the cost to install these agricultural mitigations) totaling $200,000,000 to minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides; to reduce runoff and slow rain water, and exclude animals from rivers and streams over the past decade.

To achieve the TMDL goals, Virginia is going to have to expand BMP programs and induce homeowners and business owners to change how they take care of their lawns and take action one yard at a time to reduce stormwater runoff to meet tightened stormwater goals. The Soil and Water Conservation Districts together have estimated that it will take and additional $1,740,119,000 for the technical assistance and cost sharing needs to expand our existing programs and reach all farmers, and suburban homeowners.

Virginia is using its Soil and Water Conservation Districts to introduce urban and suburban storm-water residential retrofits through its Virginia Conservation Assistance Programs and Urban Cost Share Programs. These programs provide techinical assitance and financial incentives to homeowners, Churches and businesses to take small steps to improve storm water control one yard at a time.