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New Fact Sheet Helps Chesapeake Bay States Design Nutrient Trading Programs

2011 will be an important year for the Chesapeake Bay, not only because scientists are predicting an unusually bad “dead zone” this summer.

Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) that establish the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that the Bay and its tidal tributaries can safely receive each year. The TMDLs divide the pollution loads among sources, such as urban areas regulated for stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment plants, and agricultural lands.

Now, responsibility for implementing the TMDLs falls to states in the Bay watershed that have been delegated authority from EPA to run water quality programs. By December 1, 2011, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia will submit plans to EPA that explain how sources within their jurisdiction will meet and maintain the TMDLs.

The December deadline has states reviewing legislation and regulations that could reduce the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that impairs Bay water bodies.

A role for nutrient trading

Sources face challenges in keeping pollution loads below the limits established by the TMDLs. With population growth and associated changes in land use, there has been a trend towards increased wastewater discharge and stormwater runoff. As the trend continues, some of the increased pollution loads will be reduced through “best management practices” (BMPs) or new treatment technologies. The estimated costs for implementing specific BMPs or other measures to reduce pollution from a given source can vary considerably.

Figure 1: Sample Table (Click to enlarge)

In earlier versions of the plans, states expressed interest in water quality trading programs, which would allow sources the option of shifting pollution control efforts to lower-cost practices.

For example, the water quality trading programs currently operating in the Bay watershed allow wastewater treatment plants to purchase nutrient “credits” generated by other wastewater treatment plants or farms that reduce the nutrients they release to receiving water bodies below required levels. Program rules dictate whether credits can just offset growth or both offset growth and meet the pollutant limits of existing operating permits.

Called “nutrient trading” for short, some states with programs, such as Virginia and West Virginia, are considering including sediment and expanding trading opportunities to urban areas. Delaware, a state without a nutrient trading program, is considering developing one.

As they revisit or consider nutrient trading programs, states are looking for optimal design elements from other programs in the Bay watershed. In addition, some states have expressed interest in allowing transactions across state lines. WRI’s new fact sheet, “Comparison Tables of State Nutrient Trading Programs in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed," compares 43 design elements in 12 tables across the four existing programs in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia (Figure 1). Now, policy makers in each state can easily learn how a design issue was addressed in another state. The tables are also a resource for identifying barriers to cross-state transactions.

Bay restoration may depend on nutrient trading

Now that the TMDLs have set a legal limit on the amount of pollution that may enter the Bay and its tidal tributaries, transactions in nutrient trading programs may be necessary to accommodate growth and reduce costs in the future. WRI’s comparison tables present critical information for designing nutrient trading programs in the Bay watershed. For more information on the tables, please contact Evan Branosky at ebranosky@wri.org or +1(202) 729-7630.

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