The Chesapeake Bay watershed is vast and complex. Covering 64,000 miles, the watershed includes six states and the District of Columbia. As the largest estuary in North America, it has a land-to-water ratio of 14-to-1; five times greater than any other.

Its airshed is nine times larger (570,000 square miles) than the watershed, extending as far south as South Carolina, west to Indiana and north to Canada. Emissions from power plants, vehicle exhaust and industrial smokestacks discharge pollutants that are deposited on its waters and lands.

The geography of the watershed is diverse, including the Coastal Plain and Piedmont plateau; marine and freshwater; urban and rural. And, it is home to more than 1,600 local governments, all with different responsibilities for making land use decisions that impact pollution loads to the watershed.

While the federal government and state agencies go about setting goals and establishing priorities, in the end it is local governments that implement many of the pollution control measures. They operate wastewater treatment plants; manage urban stormwater; make zoning and land use decisions; and enact ordinances.

The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement acknowledged the vital role local governments play in protecting and restoring the Chesapeake watershed and its ecosystem as well the need to support their efforts by broadening their knowledge and building capacity to act on issues related to water resources.

Local governments are on the front lines of efforts to achieve water quality standards under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. In addition to achieving water quality goals, local governments are central to the success of our efforts to achieve many of the other goals established by the Watershed Agreement regarding fisheries, habitats, stewardship, land conservation, public access, environmental literacy and climate resiliency.

For many of these goals, we have very specific outcomes we want to accomplish. We have established indicators that give us long-term targets to shoot for, as well as a way to measure our progress. We’re in the process of finalizing biennial work plans that will identify actions we’ll take over the next two years toward meeting our long-term outcomes. We’ll assess that progress to make sure we stay on track by using these indicators or measures, which also serve as tools for holding ourselves accountable and allow the public to hold us accountable as well.

We have built a number of other tools to assist the partnership in meeting its goals. We’ve developed a tool called BayFAST, which is being used by federal agencies with facilities located in the watershed to establish pollution reduction targets for their installations. This tool, the most recent in a series of customized planning tools, allows installations to evaluate a range of projects and estimate project costs for planning and budgetary purposes. It contains unit costs for each best management practice, including annualized costs for operation and maintenance. We’re working to include monetized benefits as well, so local officials can make well-informed choices by taking into account a broader set of considerations.

The partnership also is acquiring high-resolution (1-meter) land cover data for the entire watershed, and working with local officials to acquire the most recent land use data. This will allow us to use the most current information available for the 2017 Mid-Point Assessment, when we’ll be updating the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model. This information will allow us to better define pollution-loading rates for a larger number of land uses.

This information will be updated and refreshed every three years, so we’ll also be able to see how the landscape in the Chesapeake Bay watershed changes over time. We’ll also be able to use this information as the basis for developing the land use metrics outcome in the Watershed Agreement. When coupled with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data, we’re able to generate imagery that can be used to verify landscape features such as riparian forest buffers. This capability should reduce the need for on-site visits to determine whether BMPs are still viable. It will significantly reduce the cost of BMP verification.

The high-resolution land cover and LiDAR data will be made available to local governments, many of which have used scarce public funds to secure this information. Having this data available and updated on a regular basis will save local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars. Similarly, this information will be available to the general public and to conservation organizations for use in developing and implementing a variety of conservation projects.

We are also working with states, local elected officials and government staff, and representatives from urban, suburban and agricultural sectors to develop recommendations on how to better engage local partners in the development of state watershed implementation plans and make them understandable at the local level. Specifically, a newly formed Task Force is exploring whether Phase III WIPs should include local area targets and, if so, how these targets could be expressed to best inform local planning and decision-making. The Task Force will consider past efforts to develop local area targets; improved functionality of the Watershed Model at a local scale based on the higher resolution data inputs; the availability of decision-support tools such as the Chesapeake Assessment and Scenario Tool; information and resource needs; how decisions are made at the local level; and the multiple benefits that can be derived from implementing pollution control measures.

Many challenges remain. With so many local governments throughout the watershed, how do we provide timely and useful information to local decision makers? How do we share success stories so local governments and communities can benefit from new approaches that have demonstrated their value? How do we spread innovation more quickly to speed up the process of implementation?

The partnership’s Local Government Advisory Committee, which includes many local officials, is taking on several of these issues. They are participating in municipal and county meetings to get the word out and seek input, as well as trying to get local officials who have implemented successful approaches to share that information with their peers.

Through funding provided to the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office, local governments have received both financial and technical assistance. For the last three years, we’ve provided $5 million to the states and DC to support local governments. The funds have been sub-awarded to various nonprofits and local jurisdictions for projects such as green roof rebates, rain barrel installations, environmental education and the implementation of nutrient and sediment reduction projects.

Additionally, funds made available by the EPA to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation have supported a number of local projects. From 2008 through 2014, NFWF awarded nearly $9 million to local governments and $18.4 million to local organizations through four grant programs, including innovative nutrient and sediment reduction grant projects; small watershed grants; targeted watershed grants; and technical assistance grants. Finally, the Bay Program has provided $740,000 in funding to the Environmental Finance Center to help local governments identify public and private financing options to support urban stormwater and agricultural stormwater management.

The partnership understands the critical role local governments play in implementing many of the pollution control measures necessary to achieve water quality standards and restore the living resources of this economically and environmentally important ecosystem.