By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – The 300 wastewater treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed need $1.2 billion for nutrient reduction technologies if the bay is to regain its health, Sen. Paul Sarbanes said Thursday.
The Maryland Democrat was testifying in support of a bill that would provide $660 million in federal money over five years for the upgrades, which would help cut current nitrogen discharge levels by 42 million pounds a year.
Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous have long been blamed for threats to bay plants and animals.
“These nutrient-reduction technologies are the most reliable, the most immediate and the most cost-effective,” Sarbanes said in testimony to a Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water.
He co-sponsored the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Nutrient Removal Assistance Act, a bill that asks the federal government to pay 55 percent of upgrade costs for treatment plants in the bay watershed — which includes all or part of Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Sarbanes is pushing to merge his bill with a more sweeping Senate bill, the Water Investment Act, that was the subject of Thursday’s hearing. The larger bill is geared at improving water resources nationwide.
But environmental officials said the cost of reducing nutrients in the bay may be even higher than Sarbanes’ bill envisions. It could take up to $2 billion to achieve nitrogen reductions of 42 million pounds of nitrogen a year that Sarbanes is calling for, said Peter Marx, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Program of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“What the bill is trying to do is something we have to do,” Marx said.
The reduction in sewage plant discharges is part of an overall goal of cutting nitrogen discharges from all sources in the watershed by 130 million pounds a year, from the current 285 million pounds.
Cutting the discharges is important because nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients cloud the water and kill grasses that filter out pollutants and provide a habitat for bay species, Marx said.
The bay watershed states failed to meet a goal of a 40 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous flows by 2000 that was set in the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement. That 40 percent goal has been pushed back to 2010, but Sarbanes said the states are not likely to meet that goal either without federal funds for wastewater treatment plant upgrades.
State-of-the-art nutrient upgrades are not all that is needed for Maryland’s wastewater treatment plants, Sarbanes said. A Maryland task force on upgrading sewerage systems recently found that the state’s plants will need $4.3 billion to reduce sewer and sanitary overflows, for example. But under the Clean Water Act’s State Revolving Loan Fund, the state is only allotted $32.5 million.
Even combined with state and local funds, an annual gap of $80 million to $140 million in sewerage infrastructure spending still exists in Maryland, Sarbanes said. He said the state has been “overmatching” federal funds to make up for the shortfall.