ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Taking the helm of the policy-making body overseeing the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore called for the federal government and states in the Bay region to dramatically redefine the focus and goals of the 40-year-old partnership.
The Democratic governor pointed to a recent sobering report by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s own science advisors, which said that the state and federal partnership may be overestimating its progress toward reducing nutrient pollution. Existing strategies aimed at controlling stormwater runoff from farms and city landscapes are unlikely to reach their goals, a panel of the Bay’s top scientists said in the May report.
Citing the recommendations in the Comprehensive Evaluation of System Response, Moore on Oct. 19 urged members of the Bay Program’s Executive Council to take a “new approach.”
“The report was very clear that the practices that reduce pollution have not been adopted at the scale necessary to achieve our targets — not showing it’s too late, but showing that we have more work to do,” Moore said.
He added that he agreed with the scientists’ call to shift the effort’s investments to be “less focused on restoring the Bay of the past and instead focusing on building a Bay and watershed of the future.”
The Executive Council sets the top-line agenda for the Bay Program, a partnership between the federal government and the six states in the estuary’s drainage basin. The council’s members include the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Delaware; the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the mayor of the District of Columbia; and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers.
The meeting came as the Bay Program prepares to mark its 40th anniversary in December. But only two Executive Council members — Moore and Bay Commission Chair Scott Martin — showed up. The other governors and the EPA administrator sent subordinates.
The gathering is often the setting for major policy announcements, such as the approval of a diversity and equity directive and the strengthening of the partnership’s approach toward climate change. This year, the council took no significant actions beyond appointing Moore as its new chairman while meeting at the National Arboretum in DC.
For some Bay advocates, though, Moore’s words were enough.
“At this point, I think it’s good to sort of hear the recommitment part,” said Choose Clean Water Coalition Director Kristin Reilly. “It’s going to take a lot more for us to see how that actually plays out. I didn’t know if I fully expected to hear a new plan, how we’re going to achieve that and if there’s going to be a new agreement. I think that’s [going to happen] over the next couple of years.”
The Executive Council signed the current restoration agreement in 2014. They outlined 10 goals and 31 outcomes and set a 2025 deadline for many of them. It has grown increasingly clear in recent years that the effort is going to fall short of many of its objectives.
At the council’s 2022 convening, leaders tasked top-level staffers with reporting back on ways to accelerate Bay restoration efforts. At this year’s meeting, the council reviewed the resulting report, Charting a Course to 2025. It stresses that “significant progress” has been made over the last nine years toward achieving the outcomes spelled out in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
Among the efforts on track or completed are those for reopening more stream miles for spawning fish, restoring oyster habitat in 10 designated tributaries and providing more public access to the Bay and its rivers.
Rough road ahead
But while 17 of those outcomes are already completed or on track to be reached by 2025, the report acknowledges that 12 are clearly off-course and two are uncertain because of insufficient information about their status.
Among the efforts falling short is the core commitment to have all actions in place by 2025 that are needed to meet nutrient and sediment pollution reduction targets. Others in trouble include “keystone” pledges to plant many more pollution-buffering trees along rivers and streams and restore more wetlands. Those actions are critical to achieving other restoration goals, the report notes, such as improving water quality, climate resiliency and habitat.
The report identifies challenges hindering efforts, repeatedly citing staff and resource shortages along with inadequate outreach and poor coordination among states or agencies. Agencies have also failed to prioritize certain efforts, it says.
The 85-page report recommends steps for speeding up each lagging effort. It calls generally for increased investments in conservation and pollution reduction as well as fast-tracking action plans to accelerate progress.
But it doesn’t suggest that any can be boosted enough in time for the 2025 deadline. An outpouring of federal funding from Congress in 2022 should help, it says. But it warns that continuing staff constraints may limit how fast more pollution-curbing projects can be completed.
Finally, in a nod to another report due in 2024, Charting a Course implies that at least some of the goals and outcomes set in 2014 need to be revisited when considering what to shoot for beyond 2025 — to make them more meaningful, or at least achievable.
“Ambitious outcomes are inspiring and can help drive change,” the current report says, “but they must be established with a reasonable understanding of the costs, commitments and who is responsible for them.“
As the Bay Program falls short of its 2025 nutrient reduction goal, it will mark the third time that the partnership has failed to meet a self-imposed cleanup deadline for nutrient pollution since its inception in 1983.
Still, supporters say that credit is due for simply holding the line — and even making progress in some cases — against the headwinds of a growing population and changing climate.
“These improvements were made despite the continuing and cumulative impacts of climate change, population growth, increased agricultural production and development, which have impacted the level of effort needed to meet these restoration goals,” said Janet McCabe, the EPA deputy administrator who attended in the place of administrator Michael Regan, the council’s outgoing chair. “So, we have to look at our net progress, right?
“I think there’s a lot to be proud of here,” McCabe added. “But we still literally have significantly more work to do.”
If Moore and others have their way, that work may look different after 2025.
Beyond the ‘dead zone’
For decades, the partnership’s toil has largely been aimed at a narrow target: reducing the size of the summertime “dead zone” in the Bay’s deepest waters. A dead zone is an area of water with so little dissolved oxygen in it that any creature that can’t flee is at risk of suffocating.
The cause extends throughout to the estuary’s 64,000-square-mile watershed. Farms, wastewater treatment plants and growing urban areas release a glut of nutrients and sediment. Washed into the Bay by stormwater runoff, the pollution fuels massive algae blooms that suck oxygen out of the water column when they die.
The Comprehensive Evaluation of System Response, drafted over four years and endorsed by more than 60 current and former members of the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, calls for a more holistic strategy.
It advocates for greater focus on shallow areas of the Bay and tributaries — places where improvements would likely be realized more quickly. Those shallows serve as the nursery grounds for fish and other aquatic life, so such an approach should give the Bay a big biological lift as well, the researchers said in the report.
“We have to redouble our work, for sure, but focus on the living resources that we and the aquatic life interact with,” said Adam Ortiz, administrator of the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region, in an interview. “What’s emerged over the 40 years of the partnership is the importance of local water systems, that they have to be viable, that they have to have a habitat that people can access in a sustainable way.”
By shifting efforts more toward waters that people see, Ortiz and others hope to glean more public support for the improvements.
“It connects people with their resource, so they become champions for it,” he said. “It’s a strategic shift in emphasis but one that’s much more meaningful to people than the Bay, which [for many] is an abstract concept. Rather, it’s something that’s literally right in our backyard.”
Moore said that future efforts should emphasize improving the welfare of communities within the watershed, especially those that have been historically underserved. He compared the Bay to an heirloom passed on from one generation to the next.
“We’re going to take this heirloom, and when it’s time to pass it off, it’s going to be even better, brighter, shinier and cleaner than the heirloom that we inherited from those who came before us,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Executive Council did not address a request to elevate the role of the agricultural community within the Bay Program. With the region’s farmers being expected to achieve the vast majority of future nutrient reductions, state agriculture secretaries have called on the Executive Council to give them a larger voice in the cleanup effort.
In a July 28 letter to Ortiz, agriculture secretaries from all six states in the watershed asked for the creation of an agriculture advisory committee within the Bay program. Although 83,000 farms cover a quarter of the Bay watershed, generating the most nutrient runoff reaching the Chesapeake, the agricultural community has relatively little say in the Bay Program and most involvement takes place at relatively low levels.
The Bay Program already has three advisory committees representing local governments, science and stakeholders in general. They report directly to senior decision makers, including the Executive Council.
But the agriculture secretaries said in their letter that “none of those committees fully represent agriculture.” The broader farm community frequently expresses frustration that many in the Bay cleanup, and the public at large, have a poor understanding of farming.
“So,” they wrote, “it’s critical that programmatic decisions are vetted by the men and women of agriculture who have an in-depth understanding of farming operations and best management practices for agricultural conservation.”
Their letter did not say who would serve on such a group, but discussions at Bay Program committees suggest it could include state and federal agricultural agency officials, farmers, industry representatives and agriculture specialists from nonprofit organizations.
Engaging with the farming sector will be critical in determining the success of the cleanup, said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Hilary Harp Falk.
“Scientists have made clear that to achieve a healthy Bay we need to welcome innovation and creative approaches, as
well as invest in projects with verified benefits for the region’s waterways,” she said in a written statement. “More than
90% of remaining pollution reductions needed to meet Bay restoration goals must come from agriculture. Working with the agricultural community is key to success, as well as investment in farm conservation practices in the Federal Farm Bill and state programs.”