Cleanup plan for watershed causes 'sticker shock'
Preliminary price tag to meet EPA requirements is $1.1 billion for county, municipalities
Julie Pippel, director for Washington County's Division of Environmental Management, speaks to the Washington County Commissioners on May 22. (By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer / May 26, 2012)
The county’s Watershed Implementation Plan Committee has until June 30 to submit a plan to the Maryland Department of the Environment describing what the county and its municipalities will do — or will try to do — to reach targeted reductions in nitrogen and phosphorous discharges within 13 years, said Julie Pippel, director of Washington County’s Division of Environmental Management.
The Environmental Protection Agency has set the target amounts by which states and the District of Columbia should reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharges into the bay’s watershed, but the states, through the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership set the 2025 deadline, said Jeff Corbin, senior advisor to the EPA administrator for Chesapeake Bay.
The EPA set the nutrient reduction targets for the states in response to consent degrees it received after the EPA was sued more than 10 years ago by environmental groups because the federal agency wasn’t following through on part of the Clean Water Act in developing, or requiring states to develop, a plan to reduce those nutrients, Corbin said.
As a result, local governments, and in some cases residents, need to make improvements within the next 13 years to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous making its way into the bay watershed via wastewater, stormwater and septic systems, Pippel said.
The agricultural issue will be handled separately, Pippel said.
The Washington County Health Department, as a result of new regulations from the state environment department, already is changing its policies so that starting in July 2013, new septic systems and repairs made to certain existing septic systems must include upgrades to reduce the amount of nitrogen the septic tanks discharge, said David Barnhart, the local health department’s director of environmental health.
The county’s Watershed Implementation Plan Committee created a list of unspecified projects or practices that local governments could tackle to help reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharged into the local watershed, Pippel said. Those projects or practices came with estimated costs.
Too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the bay causes algae blooms, which can cut off sunlight to the water and, as they decompose, deplete the water’s oxygen supply, officials said. That suffocates aquatic life such as crabs and oysters.
“Healthwise, the bay is in pretty bad shape,” Corbin said.
Evidence of that are the massive mahogany tides or algae blooms that can be seen floating atop the bay this time of year, the fish kills that appear during the spring and summer, and the insufficient amount of underwater grasses that provide food and habitat such as shelter for juvenile blue crabs, he said.
The bay also is an economic engine, Corbin said. What would the bay’s worth be to fisheries, boaters, recreation businesses and others if it were in better shape, he asked.
Weighing the cost
While it’s the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous the EPA wants states to reduce, it’s the estimated price tags that have drawn much of the attention of local officials when they hear about the plan, which is due at the end of June.
Those price tags could change as better ways to reduce the nutrients are sought and the county works with state officials to provide better data to the EPA about local geography, Pippel said.
The estimated cost for local municipalities to make improvements by 2025 range from $2.6 million for Sharpsburg to make stormwater improvements to $220.3 million in wastewater and stormwater improvements in Hagerstown, according to information in a county document provided at the May 22 Washington County Commissioners meeting.
Washington County’s estimated costs are $794.3 million. Of that, $514.8 million would go toward reducing nutrients in stormwater discharges, $230.2 million would be aimed at septic system discharges and $49.3 million would go toward wastewater treatment plant improvements.
The county is in the preliminary design stages for making improvements to its sewage treatment plants, Pippel said.
Hagerstown completed its sewage treatment plant upgrades related to nitrogen and phosphorous reduction in December 2010, according to an email from Mike Spiker, the city’s director of utilities.