Bay Journal

New federal Bay strategy promises unprecedented effort

Plan would improve water quality, protect land and restore fish and duck populations

  • By Karl Blankenship on June 01, 2010
Island Creek near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, MD, is an example of the type of area the Treasured Landscapes Initiative is trying to preserve.  (Dave Harp) Black duck eggs. The strategy calls for restoring a three-year average of 100,000 wintering black ducks in the Bay watershed by 2025. Photo / Dave Harp (Dave Harp)

From restoring brook trout habitat in headwater streams to rebuilding oyster populations in 20 Bay tributaries, the Obama administration has set forth a sweeping vision for a revived Chesapeake Bay and its surrounding watershed.

The vision foresees permanently preserving large landscapes, widely engaging citizens in restoration programs such as restoring 180,000 acres of wetlands, and it even hints at a new national park.

At the heart of the federal strategy, released May 12, is a commitment to finish clearing the Chesapeake's murky water by 2025.

To that end, the EPA-which coordinates federal Bay efforts-promised to complete a cleanup plan by the end of this year and to follow that with new regulations and stepped-up enforcement and inspections.

"Protecting the Bay is about protecting the lives and livelihoods of 17 million people who live and work in this region," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said at a news conference to release the strategy.

"We plan to devote unprecedented resources and unmatched effort," she said. "We are initiating one of the most comprehensive protection efforts in decades."

She said the federal government would work to engage local governments, farmers, watermen, citizen organizations and others in achieving its vision of a clean Bay teeming with fish, oysters and crabs; preserved farm and forest lands; and healthy wildlife and waterfowl populations.

The strategy stems from an Executive Order President Barack Obama issued a year earlier, which called for a renewed commitment to the Bay, and stated that "the federal government should lead this effort."

The full report contains scores of specific actions and deadlines. For example, it calls for conservation practices on 4 million acres of farmland, permanent protection for an additional 2 million acres of land, and restoring the black duck population to 100,000 wintering birds.

The plan contains no price tag, but would certainly cost tens of billions of dollars.

But U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking at the news conference, emphasized that "as these resources are invested, it's going to create new economic opportunity."

"New companies are going to be formed to do a lot of this work, and existing companies are going to be able to expand their workforce," he said. "So there is an economic benefit that will accrue. And obviously, as you clean up the Bay, there are going to be tourism and recreational opportunities that will be expanded."

The federal government owns a bit more than 5 percent of the 64,000-square-mile watershed, including military installations; national forests, parks, refuges and battlefields; research facilities; highways; and a mix of other lands. The strategy affects the management of those lands and raises the importance of the Bay in departmental policies and programs, which should direct more resources toward the Chesapeake.

Although state officials helped to develop many of the goals, which are similar to other Bay Program objectives, many do not bind the states. The strategy acknowledges that many of its visions cannot be achieved without the help of states, local governments and non-governmental organizations.

However, states are legally bound to meet most of the plan's water quality requirements, and could face regulatory actions if they fail. Several state officials have consequently indicated that their primary focus would be achieving the nutrient and sediment reductions needed to clean up the Bay, and have been cautious about committing to other new initiatives.

Federal agencies "have to immediately and cooperatively reach out to the other partners," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

"Without that partnership," she added, "it is going to be a real challenge moving forward because the water, the land, the public access sites are located in states. So without buy-in from [state legislatures] and the executive branch, it is going to be real hard to make progress outside of federal lands."

To ensure that federal commitments stay on track, the strategy commits agencies to develop two-year milestones outlining the specific actions they will take. The first milestones will cover 2012-2013, although some initiatives will start immediately.

"It will be a transparent process," said Chuck Fox, a special Bay adviser to the EPA administrator. "The White House, Congress and everybody will understand who delivered what and whether or not we were successful in meeting our milestones."

The federal government will use an inde-pendent evaluator to review actions and suggest how they can be improved in the future.

The strategy promises annual federal action plans that will describe how federal funding will be used in the coming year to advance Bay goals. The first plan is due Sept. 30.

The strategy is divided into four main goal areas that deal with restoring water quality, habitats, fish and wildlife, and land conservation.

Water Quality

By 2025, the strategy calls for implementing all of the actions needed to meet Bay water quality. The full effect of those actions will be delayed. It can take years for nutrients and sediment to reach the Bay, just as it often takes years for the effects of some efforts, such as forest buffers, to mature.

Nonetheless, the strategy anticipates that approximately 55 of the Bay's 92 segments will meet water quality standards by 2025. Currently, only three do.

In addition, it calls for improving watershed stream health so that 70 percent of streams are in "fair, good or excellent" condition based on biotic health. Currently, just 45 percent are fair, good or excellent.

Much of the clean water strategy affirms what the EPA has already stated: It intends to complete a cleanup plan known as a Total Maximum Daily Load by the end of the year. The TMDL will put the Bay on a "pollution diet"-each river and state will be given a limit on the maximum amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment it can discharge into the Bay.

The EPA will require states to write Watershed Implementation Plans that will detail how they intend to reduce pollution from various sectors, such as wastewater discharges, animal feedlots, urban stormwater, agricultural lands and others.

The plans will describe how those reductions will be achieved, whether through regulations or other methods, and demonstrate that the necessary programs can achieve the goals. In addition, the plans will have to show how any new pollution sources will be offset. States will have to submit plans for two-year milestones showing what nutrient reductions they will achieve during that time. The EPA could take action against states that fail to meet their goals.

The strategy commits federal facilities, such as military bases, to make specific two-year pollution reduction commitments to help states achieve goals.

The strategy calls for a uniform tracking and reporting system by the end of the year to improve the accountability for nutrient reduction actions. The new system will track actions, whether regulatory or voluntary, and ensure that they are maintained and verified. Right now, the reporting and tracking of implementation efforts varies across the states

The EPA, working with the U.S. Geological Survey, will attempt to better track land use changes which could affect water quality, such as increases in development or losses of forest.

The EPA pledged to take several regulatory actions to assist cleanup efforts:

  • It will draft new rules for concentrated animal feeding operations by June 30, 2012, and finalize them by June 30, 2014. The rules could cover smaller operations than are now regulated, make it easier to designate new CAFOs, and set more stringent requirements for the use of manure and other wastes.
  • It will initiate national stormwater rules with specific Chesapeake Bay watershed provisions to further control runoff from development sites. The rules may cover smaller communities and require retrofitting discharges from existing systems. Proposed rules are expected by September 2011 with final action by November 2012.

The EPA said that by 2020 it would implement Clean Air Act programs that will reduce emissions from power plants, industries, ships and vehicles, and thereby significantly reduce nitrogen deposition on the watershed. The EPA may take additional actions against significant sources of nitrogen oxide emissions and agricultural ammonia emissions.

The agency promised a "Chesapeake Bay Compliance and Enforcement Strategy" to improve enforcement. As part of that, the agency will review air and water permits to ensure they are in compliance. It also plans stepped-up investigations and inspections for CAFOs on the Delmarva Peninsula, the Shenandoah Valley and south-central Pennsylvania; large wastewater treatment plants not complying with nutrient requirements; fast-growing counties; and geographic areas with high nutrient loadings to the Bay.

Fox said, "enforcement and compliance activities really do have an impact on the watershed," in part by raising awareness of regulations. Citing a stepped-up CAFO initiative on the Delmarva Peninsula a little more than a year ago, Fox said, "we now have hundreds of new permitted entities coming on line."

The EPA promised to work with states and local governments to make it easier to use the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund-which typically is used to make low-interest loans to upgrade wastewater treatment plants-to fund other pollution-reducing projects.

The strategy promises to apply nutrient and sediment control practices on 4 million acres of agricultural lands in high priority watersheds by 2025. About half of the 8 million acres of farmland are in these watersheds, so that goal means runoff controls will be established on essentially all of those lands.

The USDA will promote the most effective nutrient and sediment control practices on those lands and develop "showcase projects" in small watersheds to test highly focused initiatives. It will also fund research on new conservation technologies and "next generation" tools.

The final strategy added a focus on controlling toxic pollutants, especially "emerging" contaminants that come from sources such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products. These chemicals may contribute to fish disease and "intersex" fish. "The environmental and human health risks of these contaminants are significant," the strategy said, and it committed the EPA to developing toxic reduction goals by 2013 and strategies by 2015.

Recover Habitat

The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed are home to thousands of plant and animal species, and provides some of the most important waterfowl and fish spawning habitats on the East Coast. The strategy envisions a linked network of land and water habitats that will support priority species throughout the Bay and its watershed and help protect them from the impacts of climate change.

The strategy pledged to restore 30,000 acres of tidal and nontidal wetlands and enhance the function of an additional 150,000 acres of degraded wetlands by 2025. Right now, an estimated 1 million acres of tidal and nontidal wetlands in the watershed are available for restoration or enhancement.

It also called for expanding riparian buffers to cover 63 percent, or 181,440 miles of the watershed's available stream banks and Bay shorelines by 2025. Right now, about 58 percent of the 288,000 total riparian miles have buffers.

To restore fish migratory routes, the strategy called for removing dams or constructing fish passages to open 1,000 additional stream miles by 2025. Successful restoration would be judged by the presence of migratory fish, such as river herring, American shad and/or American eels in the rivers above the dams. In the last two decades, Bay Program partners have opened 1,924 stream miles to migration.

The strategy also called for stepped-up efforts to combat invasive species that threaten habitats, including the development of a rapid response team in each state to deal with new invaders by 2012.

The Agriculture and Interior departments will develop a strategy by 2012 to maximize forest restoration in priority areas, including areas covered by lawns, and gaps in key wildlife migration corridors.

Federal agencies will work with states to identify critical areas for living shorelines, and to leverage funding for those areas.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2011 will design island habitats at James and Barren islands to be created with dredged material.

Sustain Fish & Wildlife

The strategy notes that the success of Bay efforts "will ultimately be measured by the vitality and richness of its fish and wildlife and the health and well-being of the people who rely upon them."

The strategy calls for restoring native oyster habitat and populations to 20 tributaries by 2025. While restoration approaches will vary from site to site, the projects will generally include large-scale bottom reconditioning followed by the planting of hatchery-reared spat on shell, with planting likely to be sustained for several years to create multiple year classes on the reefs.

That would be part of a new Baywide oyster strategy to protect and restore the bivalves and their oyster reef habitats while promoting aquaculture as an alternative to commercial harvests. The strategy will be completed in 2012. Work on the first set of tributaries is set to begin that year. In the meantime, existing projects will continue.

The strategy calls for NOAA to work with the states to complete a new blue crab stock assessment. After its completion, the current interim blue crab goal of 200 million adult crabs-a goal exceeded the past two years-would be updated with a new population target in 2012. It also directed NOAA to continue to promote interjurisdictional management of blue crabs within the Bay. NOAA will also work with states to explore alternative fisheries management techniques, such as catch shares, gear restrictions and sanctuaries for blue crabs and other fisheries.

In Bay headwaters, the strategy calls for restoring naturally reproducing brook trout populations by improving 58 sub-watersheds from a "reduced" classification (in which 10-50 percent of habitat is lost) to being "healthy" (less than 10 percent of habitat is lost) by 2025.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will work with partners to identify priority subwatersheds, and undertake restoration actions such as planting riparian forest buffers, excluding livestock and restoring stream channels.

The strategy calls for restoring a three-year average wintering black duck population in the Chesapeake Bay watershed of 100,000 birds by 2025. About 37,000 winter on the Bay at present.

That will be accomplished by targeting the restoration of wetlands and adjacent uplands in waterfowl-focus areas to increase food supplies for the ducks. By 2017, national wildlife refuges in the watershed will increase by 10 percent the availability of food resources on their lands to meet the energy needs of black ducks.

Conserve Land & Increase Public Access

Many of the region's landscapes are threatened by rapid and poorly planned development that is "tearing at the fabric that defines the region and supports a way of life," the strategy said. Forests and farms are each lost?at a rate of about 100 acres a day, it said.

The strategy set a goal of protecting an additional 2 million acres that are already identified as high conservation priorities at the federal, state or local level by 2025. This includes 695,000 acres of forest identified as having high value for water quality. Currently, 7.8 million acres of land, or about 19 percent, of the watershed is permanently protected.

The new goal would cover a large chunk of the more than 2.5 million unprotected acres that have already been identified as important for conservation. But the strategy said that figure is an undercount as it does not include farmlands, many other culturally important landscapes that have not been examined, areas in headwater states, or all local conservation priorities.

The strategy called for launching a Chesapeake Treasured Landscape initiative to expand land conservation and public access in priority landscapes. The initiative, to be led by the Interior Department, would identify priority areas of ecological, cultural and historic significance and work to expand funding, as well as better coordinate and target conservation efforts across federal agencies to preserve those areas.

But the strategy emphasized that "the role of state, local and private partners in land conservation is equally, if not more, significant" than that of the federal government.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service committed to working with communities near their holdings to cooperatively conserve lands where appropriate. And the Park Service will work with local communities to help them assess priority landscapes, evaluate their capabilities, fill program gaps and suggest ways to improve protection.

The strategy called for increasing funding for land protection through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is financed through royalties from offshore oil drilling, and creating a public-private conservation funding partnership in which federal-and possibly state-money would be leveraged by private funding.

In addition, the Park Service this year will meet with state representatives to explore the potential for a new unit of the National Park System focused on the Bay. The unit would likely use a nontraditional model that relies on collaborative partnerships and would retain existing patterns of land ownership "with federal lands as a small fraction of the conserved area." Such a park was recommended in a 2004 study, but never pursued.

NOAA may also nominate Bay sites for the national Marine Protected Area program.

In addition, the USDA will develop a Baywide strategy to reduce the loss of farms and forests. The USDA and other agencies will partner with states to develop incentives for forest and farm and open space conservation.

The strategy called for adding 300 new public access sites to the Bay and its tributaries by 2025. "If a core Chesapeake restoration goal is to make the Bay and its tributaries 'fishable and swimmable,' then increasing public access to the water is not only an end goal, but also a necessary step to get there," the strategy said.

Currently, there are only 761 public access sites in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Additional Elements

The strategy also details a range of support activities. They include:

  • Develop Environmental Markets. The strategy touts environmental markets as an innovative approach to achieve management goals at reduced costs while encouraging efficiency. In these programs, one entity can meet its pollution reduction goal by purchasing "credits" created by another entity that has accomplished more reductions than required.

The USDA will lead an interdepartmental environmental market team to coordinate efforts to establish an environmental market infrastructure in the region. It will develop protocols for trading programs, including minimal actions that must be taken before credits are generated for trading; determine how environmental improvements will be measured; and establish an accountable management structure in which trading can take place.

  • Expand Citizen Stewardship. People tend to protect the places they understand and care about, but as the Chesapeake Bay watershed grows, it is also urbanizing, with fewer people interacting on a regular basis with its forests, open spaces and waterways. The strategy calls for promoting long-term opportunities that engage citizens with watershed resources so they will become more active stewards.

That starts with children, and the strategy calls for encouraging the creation of "green schools," while NOAA will develop a Chesapeake Bay Elementary and Secondary Environmental Literacy Strategy that will enhance outdoor student environmental education programs, encourage increased environmental literacy and career choices related to green jobs, and provide training for teachers.

The Park Service will lead an effort to create a Chesapeake Conservation Corps that will create jobs and conduct conservation and restoration projects. It will also expand its master watershed stewards program which trains individuals to organize and conduct restoration efforts.

  • Response to climate change. Climate change is expected to bring many alterations to the region in coming decades, including sea level rise, warmer water and air temperatures, alterations in precipitation patterns and other changes that will affect water quality and habitats. The strategy directs NOAA and the USGS to provide better information about the vulnerability of communities and habitats to help guide decisions regarding future land use and land conservation efforts.

Many of those changes may affect Bay restoration efforts-more intense rainfall events could drive more nutrients into the Chesapeake-so the report calls for climate change to be better integrated into Bay Program decisions. The EPA, NOAA and USGS will jointly explore the creation of a new climate change coordinator position to focus on the issue.

  • Strengthen science. The strategy tells agencies to improve their science programs related to the Bay to help prioritize management actions, examine the results of those actions and make adjustments when needed. To put this "adaptive management" framework in place, the strategy calls for better coordinating the Bay-related science programs within the EPA, NOAA and USGS.

It calls for a new Chesapeake Monitoring Alliance that better coordinates existing efforts to detect water quality or ecological changes, and to identify gaps in monitoring programs. It calls for improved models to inform decision-making and a greater effort to communicate new information to decision-makers.

"Strategy for Protecting and Restoring The Chesapeake Bay Watershed," is available at executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net.

Here Buoy!

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay Office in May deployed a "smart buoy" in the Potomac River just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. It is the 8th buoy in the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System, which provides scientists, boaters, and educators with real-time data about weather, oceanographic and water quality conditions. They also help mark the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and provide historic information about the area. (Information can be accessed at www.buoybay.org or by calling 877-286-9229.) The Executive Order strategy called for increased monitoring to help scientists track changes in water quality and ecosystems.

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and Executive Director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Karl Blankenship

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