After months of debate, Bay region leaders are poised to sign a new agreement that promises to not only slow the rate of sprawl within the watershed, but also to set aside more land as “open space” over the next decade than is developed.

The new Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, expected to be signed by the Chesapeake Executive Council at a public ceremony in late June, pledges to slow the rate that “harmful sprawl” development consumes farms and forests by 30 percent by 2012.

At the same time, the Bay Program partners will agree to protect 20 percent of the watershed as permanent open space by 2010. That would include publicly owned parks and forests, as well as farms and other lands with permanent conservation easements that prohibit development.

The two commitments signal a new Bay Program emphasis to not only clean up the Chesapeake, but to also protect the land draining into it. Runoff from the land ultimately affects the Chesapeake’s water quality.

Besides the land goals, the agreement contains dozens of other commitments, including a goal to complete the Bay cleanup by 2010, restore 25,000 acres of wetlands over the next decade and achieve a tenfold increase in the number of oysters.

“The agreement is superb,” said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. “In most areas it goes at least as far — and in some areas it goes beyond — where I thought we would be able to get.”

The agreement must be signed by the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three states.

The new document is the first totally new plan for the Chesapeake restoration program since the 1987 Bay Agreement, which has guided activities such as nutrient reduction, the opening of fish passages and a host of other actions over the last 13 years. Because the health of the Bay is determined by the amount of sediment, chemical and nutrient pollutants that run off the land, many had sought a specific goal in the new agreement that would drive future land management decisions just as the 1987 Bay Agreement’s 40 percent nutrient reduction goal spurred new efforts to control nitrogen and phosphorus.

But reaching such a consensus has been difficult at times. Negotiations over the document dissolved in acrimony last fall, punctuated by a December Executive Council meeting in which members openly differed over future goals. At that time, Virginia objected to a specific goal that would reduce the rate of farm and forest development 30 percent by 2010. Pennsylvania officials also had reservations.

But public comments received on the draft agreement overwhelmingly supported efforts to curtail sprawl. At a meeting in April, representatives from all Bay jurisdictions agreed on a goal that would curb the rate that “harmful sprawl” development replaces forests and farms by 30 percent by 2012 — two years longer than earlier proposed. Also, instead of being state-specific, attainment of the new goal would be averaged over Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

“All of our partners have worked hard to draft an agreement that is tailored to the unique needs of each of the jurisdictions represented in this watershed partnership,” said Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. “I am pleased to sign an agreement that expands the goals and extends the cooperative efforts of the Chesapeake Bay Program.”

While most lingering issues were resolved in April, the document could still be changed by Executive Council members during their private meeting immediately before the signing ceremony.

Meanwhile, some contentious issues were not changed — and in some cases, not addressed — in the document.

Maryland officials refused to allow language dealing with the disposal of dredged material in the Bay. And Virginia officials — engaged in a suit against the EPA over air pollution rules — refused requests that the agreement more assertively call for air pollution reductions to benefit the Bay.

“It is unfortunate that the new agreement is entirely silent on the issue of the overboard disposal of dredge spoil,” said Mike Hirshfield, CBF vice president for resource protection. “Dredging … is worthy of inclusion in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. Similarly, we were disappointed that the agreement does not include proposals for clear reductions in air pollution, a major source of nutrient pollution. We will work to ensure that the Bay Program does not forget these issues.”

But he did praise the conversion and preservation goals. “Many of the things that they did in this last round [of negotiations] seemed to be strengthening, and overall, we’re happy with the result,” Hirshfield said.

Still, he faulted the agreement for being “timid” in calling for only 25,000 acres of wetland restoration by 2010, and for failing to immediately set a new goal for streamside forest buffers that goes beyond the current 2,010-mile commitment.

Ÿut the new goal, Matuszeski noted, actually exceeds — by more than three times — CBF’s own proposal that Bay states protect 500,000 additional acres by 2010.

“We’re delighted that the Bay Program has in this one instance so greatly exceeded our expectations,” Hirshfield said. “We will be working hard to ensure that this commitment becomes reality.”

According to Bay Program figures, about 7 million acres have been permanently protected within the Chesapeake watershed portions of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

That includes national and state parks and forests, gamelands, wildlife refuges and historic sites that are publicly owned, as well as farms and other private lands that are preserved through permanent conservation easements.

Meeting the new goal would mean protecting another 1.6 million acres over the next decade, or about 160,000 acres a year — an area four times the size of Washington, D.C.

If that happens, more land could be protected each year under the agreement than would be developed.

Although estimates vary as to how much farm and forest land is lost within the watershed each year, Chesapeake 2000 negotiators decided to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Inventory as a basis for measuring the new land conversion goal.

According to that data, an average of 110,000 acres a year were developed between 1982 and 1997 in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania’s portion of the watershed, although those figures are still being refined. If that number holds, development would be limited to 77,000 acres annually within the Bay states’ portion of the watershed. (Portions of the watershed in West Virginia, Delaware and New York would not be bound by the agreement.)

So, when taken with the land preservation goal, the Bay states could be preserving more than twice as much land as is developed by the end of the decade.

“We’re cooking,” Matuszeski said. “We’re going to save this watershed.”

Besides dealing with land preservation and development, the new agreement maintains its earlier commitment to reduce sediment and nutrient pollution so that the Bay can be removed from the EPA’s impaired waters list by 2010.

If that deadline is not met, the Bay Program’s cooperative pollution control efforts would be replaced by a legally enforceable cleanup plan known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.

The revised agreement also adds a new commitment to voluntarily phase out so-called “mixing zones” around the Bay. Mixing zones are areas beyond the end of a discharge pipe where pollutants are allowed to exceed water quality standards until they are diluted by river water.

The agreement maintains a commitment to achieve a tenfold increase in oysters by 2010, a goal that was widely praised in public comments. It also retains previous goals to expand by 30 percent the system of public access points to the Bay and its tributaries by 2010, and to increase the number of designated water trails in the watershed by 500 miles by 2005.

Several other commitments, such as those promoting watershed planning, were fine-tuned for the final agreement.

Executive Council Meeting

As the Bay Journal went to press, a date for the Executive Council meeting had not been set, although officials were hoping it would take place the last week of June.

For information about the meeting, contact the EPA’s Bay Program office, 1-800-968-7229, or visit its web site: www.chesapeakebay.net