From the potential creation of new national parks and wildlife refuges to the possible regulation of septic systems, animal feedlots and suburban stormwater, federal agencies are looking to use their authority like never before.
In a series of seven reports responding to an executive order issued by President Barack Obama in May, federal agencies provided their thoughts about how to clean up the Bay by 2025, protect important habitats and landscapes throughout its watershed, and even how to prepare for impacts of climate change.
"This is a new era of federal leadership in restoring and protecting the country's largest estuary and its 64,000-square-mile watershed," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at a Sept. 10 news conference coinciding with the release of more than 300 pages of reports.
In his executive order, which called the Bay a "national treasure," Obama outlined seven specific areas for agencies to address, from improving water quality to coordinating science programs to better targeting agricultural conservation programs. The resulting reports were drafted by representatives from 10 federal agencies.
In the water quality report, the EPA outlined new actions to ensure that states meet future nutrient reduction goals, such as objecting to new discharge permits or withholding clean water grants.
"The goal here is to use federal leadership, and frankly federal muscle where necessary, to make sure that they understand that the time working solely without accountability is over," Jackson said. "We must have accountability measures, and we must be ready to enforce them when needed."
It also suggested expanding the regulation of stormwater systems and animal feedlots. Among the actions the agency said it was considering was the establishment of a model program for states that would regulate septic systems and new rules that would require new development to not generate any additional runoff to rivers and streams.
Environmental groups-which days earlier had presented the EPA with signatures of 19,000 people demanding action-generally praised the harder line proposed by the EPA.
"These reports, and this entire approach, represent a historic step forward for the Bay, and we applaud President Obama and Administer Jackson for their leadership," said Tommy Landers, policy advocate with Environment Maryland.
In addition to regulatory actions, the reports pledge greater efforts to control runoff from agriculture-the single largest source of pollution to the Bay. Historically, the implementation of agricultural conservation programs have been widely dispersed over the landscape.
The reports promise to better coordinate state and federal agricultural conservation programs, and to focus efforts on watersheds that have the greatest impact on water quality, and prioritize funding for practices that are most effective at controlling nutrients and sediment.
"We want to target the resources where they will do the most good," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "This represents a clear departure from past policies."
Backing that effort may be as much as $638 million in federal conservation funding over the next five years-a huge increase. "We intend to take aggressive actions to implement voluntary measures, market-based solutions and incentives to encourage improved health for the Bay."
By taking advantage of the voluntary programs, Vilsack said farmers could avoid future regulations.
While much of the emphasis was placed on new efforts aimed at restoring Bay water quality, the reports-literally-cover much more ground. They call for increasing public access to the Bay, where only 2 percent of the shoreline is open to the public. They also proposed a new "treasured landscape initiative" that would protect tracts of ecologic, historic and cultural areas important to the Chesapeake and its watershed.
"Like the Everglades...the Chesapeake Bay is one of the natural treasured landscapes of America," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The initiative would identify priority areas for protection by federal agencies, state and local governments, land trusts and others. The landscape report suggests a new willingness to use federal funds to preserve sites through easements or purchase. "We may need to expand some wildlife refuges, and we may need to explore options for adding some appropriate areas to our National Park system," Salazar added.
Another report outlined efforts to protect habitats for more than three dozen critical species that indicate habitat health, such as the Louisiana waterthrush, which thrives primarily in riparian hemlock forests-areas with some of the lowest nutrient runoff. It also called for ramped-up efforts for large-scale oyster restoration, fish passages and other projects that restore significant habitats.
David O'Neill, president of the nonprofit Friends of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail, praised the reports for addressing conservation efforts that go beyond a narrow focus on water quality. "We're excited to see recommendations that reflect the critical need to conserve landscapes, increase public access and engage citizens in the Bay's restoration in new ways," he said.
Other reports called for improving stormwater management on federal lands, and elevating climate change in restoration efforts by ensuring that restoration efforts consider the implications of a changing climate, which could affect the effectiveness of some management actions.
In addition, the reports call for the improved coordination of science programs among various federal agencies to provide better information to decision makers. By better monitoring pollution reduction and restoration activities, agencies can adjust programs as needed to achieve better results.
The cabinet officials indicated that the Bay region, in effect, would serve as a laboratory to explore how federal agencies could protect and restore the character and resources of a region. If the approach works here, it might be used elsewhere.
Jackson said the Chesapeake was "one of our nation's most significant environmental challenges," but the executive order presented a "historic opportunity" to return it to health.
"We have an urgent obligation to the citizens of today and to generations of tomorrow to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed," she said.
The reports were drafted with input from states, nonprofit organizations and others. On Nov. 9, the agencies will release a revised strategy that integrates the seven reports. That strategy will be open for a 60-day public comment period. A final strategy will be released May 12.
Executive orders give binding direction to federal agencies. But they do not necessarily extend from one administration to another. Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, recently announced Bay legislation that would make the executive order directives permanent.
The full reports can be found at: http://executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/.
Highlights of Reports on Farms, Stormwater, Climate & Science
President Barack Obama's Chesapeake Bay executive order also called for improved targeting of farm conservation programs; improved stormwater management on federal lands; preparing to adapt to climate change; and strengthening science. Highlights of those reports include:
Focus Farm Conservation Resources
Challenges: Agriculture is an important component of the landscape and economy, but it also is a major source of nutrients and sediment. A coordinated federal-state-local conservation effort is needed to focus on the highest priority watersheds and implementation of high-impact conservation practices.
- Focus public funding on watersheds that will have the greatest impact on the Bay and its tributaries.
- Improve USDA-EPA coordination.
- Accelerate conservation adoption by coordinating programs to increase financial assistance, simplify program participation and encourage private sector investment in conservation actions.
- Increase public-private research partnerships and focus federal funding to foster innovation in conservation tools and technologies.
- Implement an accountability system by setting environmental outcome measures; monitoring and assessing conservation effects; and scientifically evaluating priority landscapes and conservation needs.
Strengthen Stormwater Management on Federal Lands
Challenges: The federal government is the watershed's largest single landowner. The largest pollutant contribution per acre from federal lands comes from stormwater discharges. Federal agencies can provide leadership through actions on their lands.
- Agencies should employ environmentally sensitive design techniques for the site selection and layout of new facilities to allow the use of stormwater management practices that maintain or restore natural hydrology.
- Agencies should install urban stormwater retrofit practices that reduce runoff volume and improve stormwater quality from existing development where technically and economically feasible.
- Federal landholders should identify high-priority areas to manage stormwater from paved roads.
Address Impacts of Climate Change on Bay Watershed
Challenges: Climate change threatens past gains and the effectiveness of future actions to restore habitat and water quality and may significantly increase costs and time lines for these actions.
- Consider establishing a climate science research and assessment center that would be a regional Chesapeake Bay component of national efforts to address climate change.
- Integrate climate change concerns into Bay partnership activities and strengthen legislative authority to ensure that restoration programs and goals consider climate change implications.
- Establish climate adaptation guidance for managing federal programs and lands as well as federally financed state, local and private lands.
Strengthen Science & Decision Support for Ecosystem Management
Challenges: There is a growing need to improve the collection and dissemination of scientific information so that decisions by individuals, communities and governments are made with the best available knowledge.
- Focus on sustainability and adopt an ecosystem-based, adaptive management approach. Revise existing Bay partner restoration goals to include a broader group of partners.
- Bring together experts, key science elements and the information technology structure needed for more timely and integrated decision-making.
- Expand partner efforts for a monitoring and observation system to provide the integrated monitoring of upland watersheds, estuaries and the coastal ocean using common criteria and standards.
- Improve communication products, technical assistance.