Efforts to increase wetland acreage in the Bay watershed may be accelerated as regional leaders moved to clarify a wetland goal originally set in the Bay Program’s Chesapeake 2000 agreement.

Under the revision, the Bay states agreed to restore or create 15,000 acres of wetlands from 2005 through 2010. In addition, they plan to enhance or rehabilitate 40,000 additional acres of wetlands.

The revisions stem from a yearlong review of progress toward meeting a Chesapeake 2000 agreement goal of achieving a “net resource gain” of 25,000 acres of wetlands by 2010.

Figures from the states indicated that between 1998 and 2004, nearly 60,000 acres of wetlands had been “restored, created or enhanced” in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

But a task group of state and federal agency officials and scientists that reviewed the figures over the past year concluded that 83 percent of that acreage was actually an enhancement in the function of existing wetlands—not an increase in wetland acreage.

Enhancement includes such things as eradicating plant-chewing nutria from of Maryland’s Eastern Shore or removing the invasive plant phragmites, which can crowd out other species. While those actions may provide benefits, they do not increase the amount of wetlands in the watershed.

To clarify future efforts, the task group developed separate targets for wetland acrerage gain and functional gain, which were presented to the Executive Council at its November meeting.

The new targets call for:

  • A gain of 15,000 acres of wetlands between 2005 and 2010. That would include the creation of new wetlands, or the re-establishment of wetlands on sites that once contained wetlands.
  • A “functional gain” of 40,000 additional acres of wetlands between 2005 and 2010. That would be accomplished through the enhancement or rehabilitation of existing wetlands such as removing invasive species or regulating flows into wetlands to promote nutrient uptake.

In addition to those targets, the states of Delaware and New York agreed to chip in an additional 3,500 acres of new wetlands. “It was a commendable offer—3,500 acres—of pure acreage wetland acreage gain, not enhancement, from those two headwater states over the next five years,” said Jennifer Greiner, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who chaired the task group.

That adds up to 18,500 acres of wetlands from 2005 through the end of the decade. The task group’s report cautioned that this figure does not necessarily mean there will be a “net gain” of wetlands because the watershed has no comprehensive method of tracking wetland losses.

Although regulatory programs require mitigation for permitted wetland losses, some smaller-scale losses are unregulated, and others are lost to natural processes such as erosion or sea level rise. “Unfortunately, we are operating with very outdated information on losses,” Greiner said.

In addition, the task group recommended the better targeting of wetland restoration in areas that are most likely to improve water quality, provide habitat benefits or are in headwater areas of streams.

To ensure consistency across the watershed, the new targets formally adopt standard tracking definitions for wetland projects. They also direct the Bay Program to develop a new wetland acreage protection goal to promote easements, purchases or other means of ensuring long-term protection of existing wetlands.

Wetlands absorb nutrients, trap sediment, reduce flooding and provide habitat and other services, but until recent decades, they were often viewed as worthless, mosquito-infested nuisances and drained to make way for development or farms. From the 1950s through the 1970s, an estimated 2,800 acres of wetlands were lost annually in the region.