June 2007, Vol. 19, No.6
As deadlines loom and progress seems elusive, Chesapeake Bay still serves as a model for other water quality programs
With just 3 years to rehabilitate the bay as pledged in the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, wastewater treatment plants are busy with upgrades while environmental groups weigh in on the progress. With such high stakes and a high profile, Chesapeake Bay is being closely watched by other regions, from Atlanta to the Pacific Northwest
Upgrading the Plants
To meet the newly required nitrogen discharge limit under the agreement — 4.2 mg/L — the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C., would need a hefty amount of new equipment, including additional storage tanks, said John Dunn, chief engineer and deputy general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewerage Authority. The plant currently averages a 5.5-mg/L discharge, Dunn said.
Dunn’s take on meeting the 2010 deadline proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)? “Two words,” Dunn said. “It’s unachievable.”
Because combined sewers are common in Washington, D.C., heavy wet weather events have the potential to wash out the plant’s microorganisms that denitrify the wastewater, Dunn said.
“We’re proposing to increase the amount [of wastewater] that goes to excess flow treatment and install enhanced excess flow treatment that will take it almost to the level of secondary treatment,” Dunn explained. “The process we’re proposing will actually end up lowering discharges, but the flow format will be entirely different.” In other words, Blue Plains will need both additional time and money to upgrade equipment and reformat its flow.
Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Water, acknowledged the time and expense of upgrades — especially to larger plants such as Blue Plains — as a large undertaking. However, such upgrades, he said, could lead to “5 to 7 billion pounds [2 to 3 billion kg] of nutrient removal.” Grumbles added that the pollutant reduction strategies a wastewater treatment plant can implement range from biological nutrient removal to water quality trading, which he said EPA believes is “the most successful strategy to reduce nutrients.”
In Arlington, Va., Larry Slattery — bureau chief at the Arlington Water Pollution Control Authority Plant — said millions of dollars worth of upgrades are under way at his facility, but many were started prior to the Chesapeake Bay Agreement.
“We started a Master Plan in 2001 trying to do what’s environmentally appropriate,” Slattery said. “The improvements include minimizing external bypasses and reducing nutrients being discharged into the receiving waters.”
Phil Loar, management specialist at the Arlington facility, said the plant foresaw the changes it would have to make to contribute to restoring the bay’s health.
“We were doing this before EPA set that deadline,” Loar said. “We knew that it was coming.”
Currently in Arlington, as part of the $500 million renovations, a few equalization tanks are under construction to aid in the external bypass, and steps are being taken to get the levels of nutrients discharged into the Chesapeake watershed down.
“We already pretty much meet phosphorus requirements for the receiving waters, but the nitrogen is tough — it’s very difficult if you’re trying to get both nitrogen and phosphorus down to very low levels, because bugs need a certain amount of phosphorus to survive and perform the nitrogen removal function,” Slattery said. Denitrification filters have been added, which he said require a methanol or carbon source, so Arlington is also looking to add methanol facilities. The plant is also increasing its capacity from 113,500 m3/d (30 mgd) to 151,400 m3/d (40 mgd), and working on improving odor control, among other things.
A challenge for Arlington — exacerbated by the 2010 deadline — involves supply and demand.
“Basically, there’s not enough contractors out there for the amount of work that needs to get done, so it’s raising the price of the work,” Slattery explained. “Everybody is forced to meet the 2010 deadline — it’s going to increase the cost of that work substantially, and I’m not sure if that’s going to be money well-spent for the environment.”
Political Muscle Behind Atlanta Efforts
Atlanta is keeping an eye on the Chesapeake’s progress. “A lot of the policy going on in [the] Chesapeake Bay area is what will be coming down the line later in other parts of the country,” said Heather Dyke, an environmental planner in the Atlanta office of CH2M Hill (Englewood, Colo.). Atlanta’s goal is to have the cleanest urban streams in the nation within 10 years, explained Tracy Hillick, the city’s watershed manager.
Already in Atlanta, wastewater treatment plants, which Hillick said have all recently been upgraded, have switched from chlorine to ultraviolet-light disinfection. They have extended aeration and are meeting very low phosphorus and biochemical oxygen demand limits, according to Hillick. The plants, he added, are “not putting sewage in the creeks and are not putting partially treated wastewater back into the Chattahoochee River.”
A key to Atlanta’s success, both Hillick and Dyke agreed, is the political will from Mayor Shirley Franklin — dubbed the “Sewer Mayor.”
“She has absolutely stepped forward and has really put the wind in our sails,” Hillick said.
“And it’s paying off,” added Dyke, mentioning the city’s drop in sanitary sewer overflows from about 1000 about 3 years ago to 300 last year.
Crossing Boundaries in the Puget Sound
Puget Sound has been no stranger to water quality issues, addressing its ongoing problems through state partnerships under the 20-year-old National Estuary Program. The program, according to Michael Rylko, co-administrator of the Pacific Northwest’s EPA Region 10, was recently revamped when those involved with the estuary program realized their progress did not match the pace of the sound’s degradation.
The state worked with federal and local agencies to figure out how to work more quickly and efficiently to rehabilitate the sound. The four main issues troubling the watershed, Rylko said, are toxic materials, nutrients, loss of habitat, and increasing stormwater.
One solution is EPA’s effort to implement cross-program teams, which collaborate on resolving issues that cross program boundaries. One example, Rylko said, is stormwater permitting. “We’re trying to get our nonpoint source program to work more closely with our stormwater program so that there is not this huge gap between them,” he noted.
The region is also looking to Chesapeake Bay’s example in linking disparate aspects of the watershed. Earlier this year, a delegation from the Chesapeake Bay watershed met with members of the state and local governments in the Puget Sound region, as well as members of the National Estuary Program, to discuss strategy.
“We really wanted to emulate how they [the Chesapeake Bay watershed] were approaching nutrient control in the estuary,” said Rylko. “We’re really linking a river tributary strategy to what’s happening in the receiving waters. With six states [in the Chesapeake watershed], it’s extremely impressive they were able to pull that off.
“We want the sophistication of the Chesapeake approach, but we want it to cover at least those four issues,” Rylko said.
Tim Smith, of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and project manager for the Puget Sound Nearshore Restoration Partnership, said the organization has evaluated other watershed cleanup programs, particularly the Chesapeake, for ideas.
“One of the positive lessons from the Chesapeake Bay for us has been how important it is to have an active NGO [nongovernmental organization] community and leadership from NGOs,” said Smith. “The practical reason is that these projects are expensive. You’re not going to get to where you need to be unless the public is willing to provide resources to the effort.”
Funding Sources Scarce
William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (Annapolis, Md.), expressed dismay over federal funding for bay improvements. “The Bush administration has actually reduced funding for the bay since 2000 when they signed an agreement pledging to make major improvements by a deadline of 2010,” he said.
On the foundation’s State of the Bay health index, the bay scored 29 out of a possible 100 this year, an increase from 27 in 2002, Baker said.
“That’s a modest improvement, and that’s the result of almost $2 billion in new appropriations by the states,” Baker said.
However, Baker is happy to see that the government is now turning its attention to helping farmers implement best management practices, “because pound-for-pound, it is most efficient and least expensive to get a pound of nitrogen and phosphorus out [through] agricultural improvements than any other source of pollution remediation,” he said.
— Meghan H. Oliver, WE&T
A Collaborative Approach
Clean water successes in estuaries are transferable to other watersheds
Estuaries by their nature typically encompass large areas of multiple state and local jurisdictions and suffer from a wide range of pollutants that can come from thousands of miles upstream. Sound like a recipe for disaster in pulling together the collaborations necessary for restoring habitat and water quality? Not so, say U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state officials involved with the National Estuary Program (NEP). In fact, some significant clean water successes — involving total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) and water quality trading programs — have been achieved that other watersheds, including inland areas, could duplicate.
A recent study found that the stakeholder networks in estuaries belonging to NEP are much richer and more robust than in estuaries that are not part of the program, said Darrell Brown, chief of EPA’s Coastal Management Branch, during an agency-sponsored webcast in late February. Those networks, he added, help to make NEP “our most successful watershed program.”
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, NEP was established through the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act (CWA). Some 28 estuaries are part of the system, which spans 19 states and Puerto Rico. The program is designed to promote comprehensive planning efforts and actions to help protect designated estuaries that are threatened by pollution, development, or overuse, according to EPA.
During the webcast titled “Implementing TMDLs and Trading Through the NEP,” EPA and state officials highlighted the NEP program and its approach to implementing TMDLs and water quality trading programs in Long Island Sound.
“Unlike traditional regulatory approaches, the NEP targets a broad range of issues and encourages communities to develop solutions to these issues,” Brown noted. The program serves as a model, he added, of a nonregulatory, stakeholder-driven, collaborative approach based on four cornerstones:
a watershed focus that moves beyond political jurisdictions,
integration of good science with sound decision-making,
collaborative problem-solving, and
In the process, a range of stakeholders — including state, community, business, environmental, and scientific representatives — work together to develop a comprehensive conservation management plan (CCMP) to address priority problems in the estuary, according to Brown. The CCMP contains specific actions, which are designed to protect the estuary and its resources. Following EPA approval, the NEP partners then implement the management actions laid out by the plan.
The net effects of these efforts have been substantial. NEPs are making a difference in protecting and restoring habitat, Brown said, by “working with farmers and homeowners to curb polluted runoff, protecting human health from pathogens, upgrading sewage treatment plants, and installing and improving septic systems,” as well as moving forward education outreach programs that encourage public involvement.
Since 1987, NEP activities have protected or restored more than 404,690 ha (1 million ac) of habitat, Brown noted. In 2003 alone, those efforts culminated in 47,750 ha (118,000 ac) of protected or restored habitat.
A majority of NEP programs are working to accomplish their goals through TMDLs, which establish how much of a specific pollutant a waterbody can receive and still meet water quality standards, Brown said. Here, one of the key lessons learned through NEP is that community-based resource management can achieve results. However, setting measurable environmental goals and indicators is crucial, as is follow-up monitoring to ensure progress toward those goals, Brown added.
Additionally, EPA has found that although each NEP program is different and unique, all face several common environmental problems and challenges. “NEPs in particular are dealing with excess nutrients, pathogens, toxic chemicals, habitat loss and degradation, introduced species, natural flow alterations, or regime changes,” Brown explained. New issues now coming into play involve identifying personal care products and other compounds of potential concern and assessing the potential impacts of climate change and the possibility of sea-level rise.
“NEPs are at the forefront of collectively looking at solutions to these problems that can be transferred from one watershed to the next,” Brown emphasized. What is important to keep in mind, though, is that it takes time to develop and implement these plans and achieve environmental progress. Likewise, “it’s critical that the public is involved early and often,” Brown said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he added, with success in several of these areas and programs, and “we think some of that success can be transferred to other areas.”
Flexibility Through Effluent Trading
Long Island Sound showcases some of the most visible of these successes, according to EPA and state officials, who outlined the path toward these achievements. Their approach involved a mix of both regulatory and incentive-based tools, such as trading, to restore the sound’s water quality.
“We’re using the best tools available under the CWA,” such as TMDLs and permits, and blending them with the watershed-based planning and implementation approach, said Mark Tedesco, director of EPA’s Long Island Sound Office. “This starts with setting realistic goals, trying to integrate a whole host of different social objectives with environmental and economic objectives, and trying to be flexible and incorporate an adaptive management approach,” he added.
The main sponsors of the Long Island Sound NEP include EPA, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, as well as a multitude of other stakeholders.
When they started out in the early 1990s, their CCMP revealed a disturbing problem: The sound suffered from persistent low dissolved oxygen and hypoxic conditions, as well as pathogen and toxic contamination, Tedesco explained. Measurements from water quality surveys conducted last summer, for example, show that as much as half of the sound suffers from hypoxic conditions of less than 3 mg/L dissolved oxygen, and as much as two-thirds of the sound can experience concentrations — less than 4.8 mg/L — resulting in at least some chronic effects on living resources.
Further study pinpointed excess nitrogen loads, coming mostly from point sources, as the predominant cause. “Certainly polluted runoff is a problem and contributes to a lot of water quality impairments,” Tedesco noted, “but point source wastewater discharges are the dominant source of nitrogen to the sound,” which lent itself to a TMDL approach to try to control those sources.
In developing that TMDL, several issues had to be addressed, Tedesco said, including attainment of water quality standards, establishing a technical basis for the dissolved-oxygen standard, and uncertainty in managing out-of-basin loads, such as atmospheric deposition. Of paramount concern was the high-cost burden of wastewater treatment plant upgrades, Tedesco said.
Ultimately, the stakeholders settled on a 58.5% reduction target for nitrogen from sources in Connecticut and New York. This was broken down into a 10% reduction in nitrogen runoff from urban and agricultural sources, with the balance coming from point sources — namely, a 64% reduction in Connecticut and a 59% reduction in New York, respectively, to be phased in by 2014, according to Tedesco.
Meeting this goal “meant huge changes and major impacts on point sources,” Tedesco said, noting that some of these facilities treat as much as 1.1 million m3/d (300 mgd) of wastewater. To enable flexibility and market forces to work here, they built trading ratios into the TMDL, which allows some treatment plants to achieve reduction levels greater than the 58.5% reduction, while others can achieve lower levels, “as long as we’re meeting our watershedwide goals,” Tedesco said.
So far, this mix of approaches has resulted in a 25% overall reduction in point source loads to the sound, with the total nitrogen load down by 28%, Tedesco noted. Additionally, total surface nitrogen concentrations have fallen by 14% and total bottom nitrogen concentrations by 24%, surface chlorophyll-a concentrations have decreased by 16%, and bottom dissolved-oxygen levels have increased by 9%.
“The key lesson is that we really need to have flexibility in how we try to pursue attainment of water quality objectives,” Tedesco said.
For more information on NEP, see www.epa.gov/nep.
— Kris Christen, WE&T