Government officials leading a multi-state cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay pledged on Thursday to continue their efforts to reduce pollution in the watershed but acknowledged the difficulty of meeting their environmental targets for 2017.
“We have a lot of progress and work to do going forward,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who leads the Chesapeake Executive Council, said after the annual meeting at the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington. “A strong partnership is the only way we’re going to be successful.”
States have struggled since 1983 to curb pollution levels in the bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed, where urban/suburban and agricultural runoff have nurtured algal blooms that suffocate fish in oxygen-depleted “dead zones.”
In June 2014, officials from each of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s seven jurisdictions — six states and the District — signed an agreement that set new nutrient and sediment-pollution limits for the nation’s largest estuary.
The federally mandated plan, the fourth adopted by the regional partnership in more than 30 years, requires the seven jurisdictions to reach those goals by 2025 and implement at least 60 percent of the proposed actions by 2017.
On Thursday, the executive council passed resolutions to support increasing the forest buffer on agricultural lands and plan a symposium on how to finance bay-restoration efforts. They also discussed how to decrease pollution from livestock waste and increase funding for state-by-state efforts.
The Environmental Protection Agency released interim assessments last month of the progress made toward the pollution goals by the District and each state with land in the watershed. Although all the states, except Maryland, were behind, Pennsylvania was “substantially off-track” in its efforts to reduce agricultural and urban/suburban pollution, the EPA said.
John Quigley, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, stressed that the state had made some progress, with more than $4 billion in funding and a 25 percent phosphorus reduction in its pollution levels.
“Pennsylvania recognizes the volume of work that needs to be done,” Quigley said. He said state officials had plans to improve compliance with Pennsylvania’s limits.
Asked by a reporter whether the EPA would take action against noncompliant states, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency’s focus was on encouraging compliance.
“Honestly, we’re not going to tackle the issue of restoring the Chesapeake one permit at a time or one grant at a time,” she said. The agency “will continue to watch the progress moving forward,” she said.
Some environmentalists said they were frustrated by the lack of progress.
“Where was the talk about the pollution-reduction shortfall?” asked William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization. Baker said he was disappointed by the failure to acknowledge that the 2017 goals might not be met, and he called the fight for the Chesapeake “ground zero” of a national clean-water effort.
“If we can’t succeed here, what does that say about cleaner water nationwide?” he asked.
But program administrators and government officials urged patience.
“The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is one that, although still impaired, shows definite signs of resilience and recovery,” said Nicholas DiPasquale, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. “It will take time for us to see the fruits of our work, just as it took time for the damage to be done.”