Chesapeake Bay Program goals set over the last three decades are often known more for their shortcomings than their successes. Whether it was 40 percent nutrient reduction by 2000, a pledge to stop harmful sprawl, or a toxics-free Bay, many high-minded goals have been missed by wide marks or ultimately, as with harmful sprawl, altogether abandoned.

Now, as officials prepare to draft another goal-filled Bay agreement, they say the result will be different. Their reason: They plan to use "adaptive management," a scientific framework for setting goals, monitoring results and applying lessons learned to improve future outcomes.

The approach may sound like common sense, but it has not been common practice.

A critical 2011 National Research Council report about the Bay Program stated: "Neither the EPA nor the Bay jurisdictions exhibit a clear understanding of adaptive management and how it might be applied in pursuit of water quality goals."

In response, the state-federal Bay Program partnership adapted; it brought in a scientific expert to help coach its managers on the fine points of adapting to adaptive management.

But after more than a year of effort, that expert says most people still don't fully understand the concept, and the term has become a throwaway phrase for many. "And you can quote me on that one," said Carl Hershner, who is also the director of the Center for Coastal Resource Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Hershner has been racking up miles between his office in Gloucester Point and the Bay Program offices in Annapolis, meeting with various workgroups and committees, and editing goals statements like a professor grading exams.

In recent years, the Bay Program — a voluntary partnership among federal agencies and states in the Chesapeake watershed — has struggled to identify a clear direction for Bay resource management. While the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet, set out water clarity objectives, there has been no consensus to guide other activities ranging from habitat restoration to land preservation. The deadline for most goals in the last Bay agreement, Chesapeake 2000, have expired, with many unmet.

Hershner's grade for efforts to draft new goals would be an incomplete, at best. While objectives being drafted by various "goal implementation teams" created by the Bay Program have become more thoughtful, Hershner suspects many remain unrealistic and will likely have to be changed in coming years. And after more than a year of work, most draft goals lack any plans or strategies that would allow their effectiveness to be adequately assessed.

Adaptive management in its simplest manifestation calls for people to learn from their mistakes and make course corrections as needed, so it would seem be a no-brainer to implement. But Hershner acknowledged there are legitimate obstacles.

The very notion that management efforts may need to change means there is uncertainty about whether those actions will achieve intended goals. Acknowledging uncertainty, Hershner said, is "very difficult in a political program. No one wants to be seen committing huge public resources to something that everyone acknowledges is not a certain outcome at all."

In fact, the mantra of many Bay advocates in recent years has been the antithesis of managing adaptively: "We know what we need to do, we just need to do it." That mindset has emphasized the use of money for such things as installing runoff controls on farmland or restoring wetlands over assessing the effectiveness of the activities it buys.

Adaptive management, simply put, is built upon the premise that ecosystems are complex — and unpredictable. Whether restoring a stream, a wetland or the Chesapeake Bay, the exact outcome of a restoration effort is often uncertain.

Signs of that uncertainty are all around. The real-world effectiveness of many commonly used pollution control practices around the watershed are not fully understood, and although pollution control efforts have been under way in the Bay region for nearly three decades, water clarity in the Chesapeake has gradually gotten worse.

"As well-studied, as well-monitored as the Bay is, we are still confronting fundamental questions that we don't understand — fundamental to our restoration activities," said Bill Dennison. vice president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and co-chair of a Bay Program workgroup charged with incorporating scientific information into the program's decision-making.

Recent research, for instance, has shown that climate-driven wind patterns may play a role in reducing oxygen levels in Bay water. Other climate-related complications, from warmer temperatures to changed rainfall patterns, could prevent various objectives from being realized.

Because our knowledge of ecosystems is incomplete, adaptive management emphasizes the need to set clear goals, outline what actions are needed to meet those goals and monitor whether those actions are working. If actions are not achieving results, the monitoring should shed light on the reason and allow management to change course. Information gathered should help to identify which actions are most beneficial toward reaching the goal, and which are having little impact. As time goes by, the knowledge becomes more and more refined to ensure the ultimate goal will be met or modified if evidence shows it cannot be achieved.

"So we set ourselves up to learn from the experience of trying to do the best we can do," Hershner said, adding, "If it works, we want to know why it worked, and if it didn't work, we would like to know why it didn't work."

The Bay Program does set goals, has an extensive monitoring network and periodically evaluates programs — over the years, its nutrient reduction goals have been revised several times based on new information.

But past Bay goals have often been ambiguous. A goal to reduce the rate of "harmful sprawl" in the Chesapeake 2000 Bay agreement floundered in part because states could never agree on a definition of harmful sprawl. Other goals historically have been filled with terms such as "healthy" or "natural" or "sustainable" which often defy the ability to identify clear outcomes.

And while there's a lot of monitoring, it often is not done in ways that allow people to determine whether actions are having an impact. Water-quality monitoring historically has disproportionately taken place in the Bay itself, rather than in the watershed where actions are being taken to reduce pollution.

That sets up a situation in which the Bay Program is often better able to say that water quality in the Chesapeake is poor than it is to understand why it isn't getting better. Is it because not enough is being done? Is it because what is being done is not effective? Is it because actions taken have not had enough time to work? Or is it because something else is going on that has not been fully accounted for? Without that type of information, it is difficult to make course corrections — or adapt.

One example of how adaptive management could work is unfolding on Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River, where the largest oyster restoration project ever carried out in the Bay is taking place.

Before starting, agency officials and scientists established clear objectives, such as the amount of reef habitat needed and the minimum number of oysters needed per square meter of reef, for the creek's population to be self-sustaining. The multi-year project is intensively monitored to see whether the oyster population — and its habitat — is being maintained.

If the project does not fare as planned, scientists and agency officials hope to understand why: Was it because habitat became silted over, oysters succumbed to disease, or something else? Lessons learned along the way can help them adjust tactics in Harris Creek and apply them to future projects. That's a huge change from past oyster restoration projects, most of which failed, but were never monitored to understand why.

Another resource, underwater grasses, illustrates a challenge to managing adaptively.

Bay water quality standards call for water clarity that would support 185,000 acres of underwater grass beds. Scientists have cast doubt on the attainability of the acreage goal, in large part because the Bay is warming. Warm water makes survival difficult for eelgrass, which prefers cool water. But eelgrass is the dominant species in high-salinity areas, and without it, the acreage goal couldn't be met in some saltwater areas. Yet the water clarity goal would still be driving nutrient and sediment reductions.

Under that scenario, there may be a perverse twist. One of the main reasons for the underwater grass goal is to provide shelter for juvenile crabs and fish. Some biologists have suggested that clear water without grass beds could actually make those species more vulnerable, because they would be easier for predators to find.

Taken to the extreme, if there were specific areas where there was no hope for underwater grasses returning, water-quality officials would need to rethink whether their ultimate goal is to protect juvenile fish and crabs, or achieve water clarity, and adapt accordingly.

That raises another concern about adaptive management — that it opens the door to making goals easier by changing them. "The Bay Program was always focused on outcomes, and those outcomes can't change without the suspicion that we are arbitrarily changing them just because we can't meet them," said Carin Bisland, associate director of the EPA's Bay Program Office.

To counter that, Hershner, Bisland and a small team working to instill adaptive management in the Bay Program have developed a decision framework for setting goals to guide the process. (See "Decision-Making Framework for Adaptive Management," on page 13.) The framework requires that goals be clear, relate to management objectives, identify needed actions for achievement, identify uncertainties, establish monitoring needs and include an evaluation of results.

The objective, Hershner said, is to have a decision-making process that is transparent and accountable. If there is a need to change goals, he said, the reason should be evident.

"Everyone should be able to look at what has happened and be able to conclude, "were you right or were you wrong,' " Hershner said. "It doesn't mean that we are always going to get to the great outcome, but at least we are going to be able to be honest about what we know and why we are doing what we are doing."

But the framework developed by Hershner has received varying levels of support from officials, and various Bay Program goal implementation teams charged with developing and overseeing outcomes. Some embrace it while others say they are already adaptively managing.

"I think we have a lot of the pieces already," Bisland said. "It is the way we are managing them that has to change. There has to be more rigor in the documentation and the follow-through."

That is also part of the problem with implementing adaptive management, Bisland said. Many state and federal program managers feel they do make changes when new information becomes available. They often see the written documentation as yet one more job that piles up in the in-box.

Yet scientists feel the rigor of the documentation process forces people to think through the logic of their goals, and how they will achieve them. "This is trying to change the way you imagine, and therefore undertake, all of your activities," Hershner said.

Nick DiPasquale, director of the EPA's Bay Program Office, said it's understandable that winning acceptance of a rigorous approach to adaptive management has been a slow process, especially as agencies deal with budget cuts and staff reductions. "They are dealing with all sorts of things that kind of change their focus, so applying adaptive management in those circumstances becomes a lot more difficult."

Yet DiPasquale said the Bay Program has no choice but to become more adaptive. External factors, such as climate change, means the Chesapeake of the future will be different from that of the past. As rainfall patterns change, runoff control practices may not perform as anticipated, and the Bay itself may not respond as expected as sea levels rise and temperatures warm. "It will be a constant challenge to figure out how these impacts are occurring, and how we need to respond to them," he said

But DiPasquale insisted that any commitment to adaptive management in a new Bay agreement would be legitimate, and followed up with detailed strategies showing how each goal would be achieved. And, he said, it will be easier for goals to be changed, if necessary.

"I think it is going to mark a difference from the way we have been doing it in the past," DiPasquale said. "And I think it will be a more efficient way of doing business as well."

Decision-Making Framework for Adaptive Management

  • Goals: Articulate explicit, unambiguous goals so it is clear what activities are needed to support them. For instance, calling for protecting "healthy" or "natural" or "vital" aquatic habitats is insufficient. A better goal would be to define important habitats as underwater grass beds, oyster beds or important anadromous fish spawning reaches.
  • Factors Affecting Outcomes: Once a goal is set, it is important to understand what factors would affect attaining that goal. Those factors should include both those things directly influenced by management efforts, such as pollution control programs, and those over which there is little direct management control, such as land use or climate change.
  • Identify Management Gaps: Once factors are identified that could affect goal achievement, it is important to identify where gaps exist in management programs. For instance, if a goal is a no-net-loss of wetlands, regulatory programs alone may not achieve the goal because wetlands are lost outside regulatory programs. Success would rely on having sufficiently funded nonregulatory programs to restore wetlands to make up for losses.
  • Develop Management Strategies: Management strategies are the series of actions that address factors that affect goal attainment. They should be measurable and identify what should happen as the results of particular actions.
  • Develop a Monitoring Program: The monitoring program should be linked directly to the management strategy to ensure both that the actions are being done, and that they are having the expected results.
  • Assess Performance: Programs need to be assessed to determine if the actions prescribed were actually implemented, and whether those actions accomplished what they were expected to. While the overall goal may not be accomplished, it should be possible to identify whether a system is on a trajectory to meet its goal, based on the level of actions taken.
  • Manage Adaptively: Apply lessons that are learned, such as prioritizing activities that are producing the best results toward achieving a goal over those that are less effective. In some cases, additional research may be needed, monitoring adjusted or goals changed based on information learned.