Cleanup Estimate For Bay Lacking
EPA Program's Computer Formulas Called Optimistic

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007

The Environmental Protection Agency program in charge of the Chesapeake Bay has been overstating its progress, relying on formulas that exaggerated improvements in pollution, according to a new scientific review.

That review found that a computer model of the Chesapeake, used by the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program to gauge improvements in the estuary's health, tended to inflate the impact of some cleanup measures.

Tom Simpson, a University of Maryland professor who led the review requested by the bay program, said there was no evidence that the EPA had been purposefully deceitful.

But the news is still not good for the program, which calls itself one of the country's premier environmental efforts. Facing a 2010 deadline, it might now be even further behind than previously thought.

"We want to know the truth, you know -- not what we want to happen," Simpson said. After reviewing a set of assumptions used by the bay program's model, he said, "across the board, we found that [they] . . . were a little optimistic."

Program officials said they need to make changes. "We're going to probably have to do more than we'd previously planned" to clean up tributaries around the bay watershed, said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA bay program.

The Chesapeake Bay Program, headquartered in Annapolis, is administered by the EPA and includes a variety of state and federal agencies. Since 1983, it has overseen a cleanup effort that has received more than $3 billion in government funding.

The program has been criticized before for puffing up its results: In 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the bay program had been "projecting a rosier view of the health of the bay than may have been warranted."

The bay cleanup faces a mandate to produce a healthy Chesapeake by 2010, but officials have already conceded that is unlikely to happen. At its last count, the cleanup was still far from its goals for reducing three major pollutants. That count found it was 44 percent of the way toward its goal for nitrogen, 60 percent for phosphorus and 57 percent for sediment.

The new report shows that those numbers might be too high.

Simpson and other researchers were asked by the bay program to review some of the calculations plugged into its computer model. These equations described the impact of certain save-the-bay tactics: plant X amount of cover crops to hold fertilizer on farm fields, thus achieving a decline of Y in fertilizer-polluted runoff.

But Simpson said his review found that many of the equations were based on small-scale experiments that might not predict what would happen on a large farm. Others were based on the educated guesses of experts.

"A lot of them, there was very little data" when the calculations were devised about 10 years ago, Simpson said. "So a lot of it was just professional opinion."

And, as it turned out, a lot of the assumptions were off target, Simpson said. He and a team of university researchers with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Program reviewed new research that documented how much good each of these practices did in the real world.

According to the bay program, they found that 18 of the 36 measures actually had less of an effect than they had been credited for.

For instance, a practice called conservation tillage, in which farmers try to plant crops with minimal disturbance of the soil, was supposed to deliver an 18 percent reduction in nitrogen pollution. But the real number was more like 8 percent, Simpson's team found.

Another tactic was using fencing and water troughs to keep livestock from drinking and standing in streams. This keeps cows from polluting bay tributaries with their waste, and it was believed to deliver a 60 percent drop in nitrogen. But Simpson's team found the number was more like 25 percent.

Fifteen assumptions were found to be accurate, and three were found to underestimate the benefit to the bay, according to the bay program.

Howard R. Ernst, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and one of the EPA bay program's fiercest critics, said he saw these mistakes as part of the same problem pointed out by the GAO.

"The bay program has evolved into a public-relations machine," Ernst said. "They've been spinning the data for so long that they've forgotten that they're spinning."

But Jeffrey L. Lape, the bay program's director, rejected that idea.

"For some people to suggest that there was a deliberate attempt to be optimistic is just wrong," Lape said. He said the figures were based on "the best science we had. . . . Better science today gives us a different picture."

Ultimately, Lape said, the bay program's success should be judged using the bay itself, not a computer simulation. For now, he said, the bay shows the cleanup effort is falling short.

"We need to do more," Lape said.

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