The Bay region may have fallen short of its nutrient reduction goal, but a new report says the states have surpassed another decade-old commitment: They have permanently preserved more than a fifth of the watershed as open space.
Through last year, 21.3 percent of the Bay watershed portions of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia had been permanently protected through either outright purchase or, more commonly, through conservation easements that prevent development.
Altogether, the three states protected 1.24 million acres between 2000 and 2009, according to a report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the Chesapeake Conservancy. Put another way, that's more than 1,900 square miles, or an area 27 times the size of the District of Columbia.
The report calls on the states, along with federal agencies and local governments, to maintain their land conservation programs in order to preserve another 2 million acres by 2025, a goal set in the recent federal Bay strategy developed in response to President Barack Obama's Chesapeake Bay executive order.
"The lands of the Chesapeake hold the key to the environmental health and economic well-being of our region," said the report, Conserving Chesapeake Landscapes.
"The Bay's land-to-water ratio - 2,800 square miles of land to every one cubic mile of water - is the largest of any coastal body in the world," the report said. "How we use and protect these lands is the single most profound factor affecting the Bay's water quality, the 110,000 miles of creeks and rivers flowing into it, the myriad living resources that depend on it, and the quality of life of the 17 million people who live around it."
The Chesapeake Bay Commission represents the legislatures of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Chesapeake Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that promotes the conservation of the Bay's landscapes and access to its waters.
Their report said that meeting the new goal could be achieved by maintaining the land protection pace of recent years, which is about 125,000 acres a year. But that's unlikely to happen, it noted, because state budgets put land conservation programs on the chopping block because of the economic downturn.
In Maryland, funding fell from $227 million in 2009 to $75 million this year, the report said. In Pennsylvania it fell from $122 million to $84 million, and in Virginia it went from $142 million to $90 million. Budgets are expected to remain tight for years.
Historically, state programs have been the main drivers in land protection. In 2009, for instance, states put a combined $491 million into land conservation, while the federal government provided about $48 million for land preservation in the Bay region - less than one-tenth of the state investment.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission,said the federal government needed to increase its support, especially in the short term, to make up for state cuts.
When setting the new 2-million-acre goal, the federal strategy promised more federal support. The goal also called for creating 300 new public access sites to the Bay and its tributaries.
Among the possible federal funding sources is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses royalties from offshore oil drilling to fund land conservation. Historically, the program has rarely been fully funded at its $900 million level, but Obama and many conservation groups have called for full funding, and to make half of the fund's money available to states. The federal strategy also called for a new Chesapeake Treasured Landscapes Initiative that would help target federal resources to protect ecologically, culturally and historically important lands. Some Farm Bill programs can also help protect agricultural lands.
"For the 2-million-acre goal to solidly stick, the federal government must step forward and bring new resources to the region," Swanson said.
Federal leadership is especially important because the previous goal was set in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, which was signed by state governors, as well as the EPA. The new goal was set by federal agencies.
Further, some worry the failure to meet nutrient goals could jeopardize land conservation efforts. Under the EPA's proposed new Bay cleanup program, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, states could be subjected to hugely expensive sanctions if they fail to meet future nutrient goals. As a result, some state officials have indicated their Bay-related priorities would likely be focused on nutrient reduction.
"That's a huge concern," Swanson said. Although land preservation heads off future pollution by preventing development, it does not directly result in any nutrient reductions. Therefore, land conservation expenditures don't help meet nutrient goals.
But, Swanson said, millions of pounds of nutrient runoff could be prevented if protected farmland were required to install a suite of nutrient control practices as a condition for receiving conservation easements.
"Hopefully, this report is going to get people thinking about that, and thinking about how land conservation factors into the TMDL, because it has to," Swanson said. "Fundamentally, conserving the landscape, either as open space, or as working lands with best management practices, is good for water quality."
Although they are not signatories to the 2 million acre goal, Swanson said states have signaled support for land conservation. Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell has set a 400,000-acre land preservation goal to be achieved before the end of his term in early 2014.
Besides maintaining state programs, the report said land conservation goals could benefit from new market mechanisms - such as mitigation banking to offset the impacts of development or trading programs for nutrients or ecosystem services - may prove to be effective means of preserving land in coming years.
While the 2 million acres goal will be challenging, it does bring new allies. The old goal of preserving 20 percent of the watershed applied only to Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, which were signatories to Chesapeake 2000. The new goal will also count lands protected in Delaware, New York and West Virginia portions of the watershed.