So the tents have been struck, the banners have been taken down and folded up, and the reporters have all filed their stories. The celebration of a comprehensive and far-reaching new Chesapeake Bay Agreement is over. Now the work begins.
Drawing on the experience of recent years, the Bay partners were wise enough to set a number of new goals with specific measures of progress and with timeframes. These will get much of the attention – a tenfold increase in oysters by 2010; a meaningful Bay or stream outdoor experience for every child graduating from high school in the watershed by 2005; a 30 percent reduction in the rate of loss of forests and farmlands to harmful sprawl development by 2012, to name but a few.
But buried within the text of the agreement are a number of important goals that lack such precision. Either because an agreement on a date to achieve the result could not be reached, or it wasn’t thought important to set a timeframe, or for some other reason, there are goals that sit there like race cars without drivers, or teenagers with great potential but little current momentum to get off the couch.
I want to flag a number of these because they can significantly add to our progress if we take them seriously and decide to give them the attention they need. The ones I have selected I call the “Seven Sleepers,” because that is precisely what will happen to them if we don’t pay attention, and because they harbor real potential to push forward the restoration effort. Mine is by no means an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to read the agreement closely to find others to become your causes.
First and perhaps most important, the agreement calls for continued efforts to achieve and maintain the 40 percent nutrient reduction goal agreed to in 1987. This goal was to be achieved this year and maintained thereafter. But it is overshadowed by the laudable new water quality goal to remove the nutrient and sediment impairments in the Bay completely by 2010. The situation is complicated by the fact that it is generally accepted that we will fall short of the goal by several million pounds, and that some of the actions states were expected to take to achieve it have been put off to as late as 2006.
While it can be argued that the new goal will move us as quickly as possible to the reductions we need to achieve the old, what is being obscured is the commitment to maintain the reductions. The idea here is that after 2000, new loadings will need to be offset by reductions elsewhere to maintain the cap. There is a danger that the systems to assure these offsets will be delayed or avoided by the states as attention turns to the new goal, or to closing the gap on the old goal.
This would be a serious step backward, as we could easily lose much of the progress of the past 15 years to new treatment plants, new subdivisions and new concentrated animal feeding operations. We must be vigilant and keep to our word — even as we try to close the gap to reach the 40 percent goal — and move on to even greater reductions under the new agreement.
A second goal lacking a specific date calls for an evaluation of the potential impact of climate change on the Bay watershed, particularly with respect to wetlands, and the consideration of potential management options.
As the implications and the certitude about climate change become better understood, this requires us to investigate what it means for the Bay basin. In addition to sea level rise and other effects in tidal areas, upstream impacts in the nature of storm patterns and intensity may require a look. But without a specific date to accomplish this, we are left to decide when the issue is “ripe” for our attention. Or to forget about it.
The third “sleeper” is the goal for the recovery of submerged aquatic vegetation, or Bay grasses. It is specific with respect to amount (114,000 acres), but lacks a date for achievement. When it was set several years ago, we were making pretty good progress, having just about doubled the acreage from the 1984 low-point of 34,000 acres.
But there was recognition that the recovery of all areas with near-term records of grass beds (which was the basis of the 114,000 goal) was highly dependent on river flows and other natural conditions beyond the control of mere mortals, let alone bureaucrats. So there was resistance to setting a date to achieve the goal. As far as the bureaucrats are concerned, they were vindicated, since the years that followed were generally very wet and the recovery leveled off. But as far as the recovery effort is concerned, I suggest we have lacked the impetus to seek out new methods and technologies for helping the beds recover because we have no pressure to perform.
By the way, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has set a goal of 250,000 acres by 2010, still only 40 percent of the potential bottom acres that could support grasses.
The fourth goal has something of a timeframe, because it supports the effort to have community-based plans for preserving key wetlands being implemented in 25 percent of the land areas of each state’s watershed by 2010. The goal is to provide information and assistance to local governments and citizen groups to develop the plans. My point is that if we don’t start moving out on that goal immediately, we will never be able to meet the 25 percent goal by 2010.
This is because identifying which wetlands are “key” and preserving them through the use of local government authorities, including the protection of the adjacent land areas, are not simple tasks. It requires a high level of technical assistance and commitment of substantial state and federal resources to get out to the 1,600 local governments in the watershed. And without a date to get us moving, the tendency will be to put it off or fail to realize the necessary level of support.
The fifth “sleeper” has been with us for a number of years, and we have an established track record of ignoring it. When we adopted our unprecedented goal to rebuild forest buffers on 2,010 miles of streambank and shoreline by 2010, we also agreed to a goal to conserve all existing buffers. We have moved forward aggressively on the buffer placement goal, and thanks to great support from citizens and industry, as well as innovative action by state and federal forestry agencies, we are well on track to achieve that visible and measurable goal.
Meanwhile, we have essentially ignored the goal to preserve what we have, other than restating it in the new agreement. So we may well be losing more out of the bottom of the inventory than we are putting in at the top.
Part of the argument is the difficulty in tracking and measuring buffer losses. But I fear that some of it is also a sense of helplessness about what authorities are available to prevent their loss. Even where we have allegedly strong state controls in place, a trip along any of our tidal tributaries will reveal new mansions looking out over lawns down to the water that simply couldn’t have been there a few years ago.
We need some new energy cranked into this goal. While it lacks a date, the implicit date is now. Perhaps we made a mistake; would the goal have been taken more seriously if we had given the partners some time to gear up for it? It could be a good opportunity for citizen monitoring, if there was someone to report to who could act to prevent the losses. It is also an area where working with local governments is critical. Right now it is getting little or no attention even though it needs it.
The sixth area where we have a good goal without a date is our commitment to offer technical and financial assistance to local governments to provide for the conservation and sustainable use of forests and agricultural lands. This is similar to the wetlands goal I mentioned above: We have a strong, clear goal that relies on local government, and we have a rather vague goal to provide the help. In this case, the specific goal to permanently preserve 20 percent of the land area of the watershed from development by 2010 is the driver. We need to be sure that the partners step out early with the kind of help local governments need to provide their critical support in realizing this goal.
Finally, the seventh “sleeper” is a rather long-winded transportation goal, the convoluted syntax of which reflects the difficulty of negotiating anything meaningful in this controversial arena. Not to say we all didn’t try. The goal calls on the partners to “consider the provisions” of the federal transportation statutes for opportunities to apply some of the innovative provisions on purchasing easements along rights-of-way and dealing with stormwater on both new and rehabilitated projects.
The point here is that these provisions exist, and that by exercising some creativity with state departments of transportation, we can gain access to substantial funds to help achieve many of our land preservation, anti-sprawl and water quality goals. Or we can forget about them because they don’t require us to achieve anything by a particular date. My point is that the potential for benefits could far exceed the effort to reach out to state DOTs in this area.
There are many other near-hidden treasures in this new Bay Agreement; these seven are simply illustrative of the potential.
What must be remembered is that all of us who are involved in the Bay Program fulltime tend to get focused on the goals with deadlines and “deliverables.” That is the nature of any bureaucracy, and the fact that folks take those dates seriously is not only good, it is exemplary.
So it is really up to you to remind us of all these other things that need to be done, things that tend to slip to the back burner or even off the stove if you are not looking over our shoulders.