The Bay Program has successfully led efforts to restore the Chesapeake but has failed to articulate a vision to the public of what a cleaned-up Bay should look like, according to a new report to Congress.

As it begins to make good on promises made in the new Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, the report says, the Bay Program still faces key challenges in managing growth, creating a stewardship ethic within the public and generating more cooperation — especially with local governments.

Those are some of the conclusions of a two-year review of the Bay Program carried out by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. The findings were based on hundreds of responses from a Bay Journal questionnaire, dozens of focus groups and nearly 100 one-on-one interviews conducted with regional leaders in government, environmental groups, business and agriculture.

Congress funded the project to evaluate the success of the 17-year-old Bay Program, gauge the public’s view of the program, determine the most critical issues ahead and identify potential internal changes needed by the Bay Program.

“This is basically a good news report,” Fran Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance, said in a recent presentation of the findings to the Bay Program.

She said the results showed that the Bay Program is viewed as having brought about measurable improvements in the Chesapeake, advancing estuarine science and generating public and political support for restoration efforts.

Overall, surveys, focus groups and interviews revealed a general consensus that the Bay Program has successfully helped to bring about nutrient control efforts in the watershed and improved the living resources of the Bay.

In addition, there was strong agreement that the Bay Program was instrumental in raising overall public awareness about issues facing the Chesapeake. Many also said the Bay Program played an important role in bringing about toxics reductions, improving science and technology, and building a cooperative partnership among governments and citizens in the region.

At the same time, people identified many challenges ahead. Topping the list, by far, was managing growth in the watershed, which was singled out as the number one priority in questionnaires, interviews and focus groups.

And, while people said progress was being made on nutrient and living resources, those were also among the top three things people singled out as needing more work. In the realm of living resources, for example, people recognized that the situation had improved for some species, such as striped bass, but not others, such as oysters.

A major concern cited was the Bay Program’s lack of any overall vision. While its goal is restoring the Bay, there is no overall consensus as to what a “restored” Chesapeake would look like — only an array of management goals and strategies.

That raises concerns among some stakeholders that the Bay Program has no clear endpoint, so goals — and what people are asked to do — could change. “There are a lot of folks out there who are concerned about this,” Flanigan said. “They want to know where you’re going.”

The Bay Program gets high leadership marks for highlighting emerging environmental issues, such as the impact of air pollution on coastal water quality.

But, while there is a general perception that the Bay Program is based on good science, the report said there is a continued need to support both fundamental and applied research to fill “knowledge gaps.”

Likewise, monitoring and computer modeling programs need to be refined so they produce timely results and build the public’s confidence about decisions being made.

In general, people also feel that the time has come to better integrate West Virginia, Delaware and New York into Bay efforts, even if they do not become full members of the Bay Program. Closer to home, implementing the goals of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement will mean that the Bay Program must expand outreach efforts and work harder to include local governments in the decision-making process.

The report offered four main recommendations to the Bay Program:

  • Create A Shared Vision: A common vision would help build the public “buy-in” needed when making difficult choices in the future about Bay restoration and protection efforts. That might mean better articulation of what healthy fish populations would look like, how many acres of underwater grasses should be present in the Bay, the number of acres of wetlands and miles of stream forest buffers that are needed, and so on. “We think there needs to be a shared vision, some notion of what it is going to look like in 50-100 years,” Flanigan said. Developing that vision would need input from communities and governments throughout the watershed.
  • Better Land Management: While there was clear agreement that improved water quality would require better land management, it is also clear that the Bay Program has major hurdles ahead in grappling with the issue. There is a need for better scientific and economic data to guide land use decisions in ways that will benefit the Bay and local streams. Being able to link specific land management actions to the health of the Bay will become more critical as states and communities are asked to “cap” nutrient loads even as development pressure continues. To accomplish its cleanup goal by 2010, the Bay Program will need more commitment, cooperation, ingenuity, communication, research — and dollars — than ever before.
  • Cooperative Government: The Bay Program’s governance system, which brings representatives from state and federal governments together to make consensus-based decisions, was universally viewed as a success. But to be effective in the next phase of the Bay restoration effort — which places more emphasis on local actions — it must move to include local governments, unrepresented stakeholders and new state and federal agencies (such as departments of transportation). In addition, it needs to change its management structure to better emphasize watersheds, perhaps by developing committee organizations based on watersheds.
  • Build A Stewardship Ethic: The Bay Program needs to place more emphasis on education and outreach. While the public has a better understanding of issues facing the Bay than it did 20 years ago, there is little understanding of how personal actions affect the environment. To improve outreach, the Bay Program should focus efforts at the small watershed scale where people feel connected to their rivers and their communities. At the same time, it should more effectively use the media to inform broad, general audiences about its work. Teachers need to be apprised of material available from the Bay Program. The goal is more people making individual choices that help the Bay.

“The Chesapeake Renewal Project Report to Congress” is available on the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s web site at: www.acb-online.org