For 35 years, the Chesapeake Bay Program has been the collaborating force behind Bay restoration.

This December marks 35 years since the signing of the 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement. This agreement set up the Chesapeake Bay Program and started the monitoring network that has been at its center for more than three decades. The Bay Program has changed as we’ve learned more about the Bay watershed, but the fundamentals have stayed the same: We are fueled by science and driven by partnership.

Sticking to these values, the Bay Program has been able to stay on the right track. By convening different groups and working together, the partnership has hit milestones that were unimaginable at the beginning.

The original signers of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement initiated the program when they saw the results of a Congress-commissioned multiyear study. The Bay was in poor health, and excess nutrients were to blame.

But the results went beyond science. Maryland and Virginia were losing a lot of money because the crab and oyster fisheries were impacted. Tourism decreased because people didn’t find the Bay swimmable.

“I can tell you that when I started almost 34 years ago, I would’ve never thought that we would have made the progress that we have,” said Rich Batiuk, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s recently retired associate director for science, analysis and implementation.

“When I came, we had 12 million people. We now have 18 million people,” Batiuk noted. “You would have had to reduce the footprint just to hold steady, and you could have claimed success. We’ve not only done that, but we’re turning it the other direction. The system’s coming back.”

Last year, we saw the largest amount of underwater grass acreage in the Bay in our three decades of collecting data—an estimated 104,843 acres. This surpassed our 2017 restoration target and, along with being the fifth consecutive year of acreage growth, is the first time in modern history that grasses in the Bay have exceeded 100,000 acres. It represents the biggest resurgence of underwater grasses recorded, not only in the Chesapeake Bay, but in the entire world.

Bay Program partners also completed oyster restoration on two tributaries: Harris Creek in Maryland and the Lafayette River in Virginia. Now home to 351 acres of oyster reefs, Harris Creek represents the largest oyster restoration project in the world.

A relay race

Although much of our progress has been seen in recent years, the groundwork for these successes was laid a long time ago.

“This not a marathon but a relay race,” said Carin Bisland, associate director for partnerships and accountability at the Chesapeake Bay Program.

At its inception in 1983, the Bay Program was founded on coordinated science and monitoring. The governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia and the mayor of the District of Columbia met with the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory group that represents the state legislatures, to sign the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement. In this groundbreaking document, the signatories agreed to work together toward a healthy Chesapeake.

This first agreement brought together these different entities, established a coordinating Chesapeake Bay Program office in Annapolis and set up a monitoring partnership that exists to this day.

“At that point, we were actually building up what is now entering into its fourth decade: the partnership’s monitoring program,” Batiuk said. “The states and DC were working with us to set up what is now about 160 stations in their 34th year of collecting water quality data across the entire Chesapeake Bay.”

Through the Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Program, the partnership established consistent standards for water monitoring in the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia and the District of Columbia.

While this may seem obvious now, Bisland said, it was unheard of at the time for states to use the same monitoring protocols, and this innovation set up the partnership for success. Not only did it make it possible to compare progress among the four jurisdictions, but it also began the process of building trust across the partnership.

This trust allowed the Bay Program to apportion pollution responsibly across the jurisdictions based on one model that everyone agreed to. By the time 1987 rolled around, the partnership was ready to work toward its first numeric goal rather than setting up programs with only vague goals of reducing pollution.

“We had this growing partnership agreeing to numerical goals about what we wanted to try to do,” Batiuk said. “It set the basis for actually dividing up those goals among the four jurisdictions that were currently at the table.”

The Bay Program partners signed the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement committing to an ecosystem approach to restoration, with the stated goal of reducing 40 percent of nutrients entering the Bay.

While ambitious, this was the first time the partnership committed to a measurable goal and an ecosystem approach. It was the first agreement in which the partnership committed to take specific voluntary action to reduce pollution, restore fisheries and habitat and increase stewardship of the Bay and its rivers.

In 1992, through amendments to the 1987 agreement, the partnership officially acknowledged that, to bring back the Bay, they had to focus more than just on the Bay itself and its most impaired waterways. They began to create plans to reduce pollution in all of the Bay’s waterways, called tributary strategies.

Uniquely Chesapeake

By the end of the 1990s, the partnership had gathered close to two decades’ worth of data about the watershed. They also had worked together for more than 10 years at reducing pollution, restoring habitat and improving fisheries management, but they were running into a problem that made this difficult.

Under the Clean Water Act, the states and DC had to take certain actions to improve waterways that are impaired. But in the partnership’s voluntary Chesapeake Bay Agreement, they had agreed to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. This meant that they had regulatory responsibility to improve their impaired waters to meet water quality standards, and a different set of voluntary responsibilities to the Bay Program to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution by 40 percent.

On top of the fact that there were two different approaches to meet, the water quality standards in the Bay were, in some instances, inconsistent across state lines. In addition, scientists didn’t think the regulatory standards were reflective of what was known about the biology of the Bay, and, for deeper waters in some areas, might not be possible to ever achieve.

Armed with monitoring data and cooperation among the jurisdictions, the Bay Program worked with the EPA to reconcile these two programs — the regulatory and the voluntary — to create one program that would be better suited for the Chesapeake Bay.

The Bay Program achieved this through the signing of another agreement, Chesapeake 2000. This agreement had more numeric goals — including wetland acres, miles of fish passage and an increased number of oysters — but most importantly, it called for the development of consistent standards built from the unique scientific understanding of the Bay. This allowed the jurisdictions to develop coordinated water quality standards that, once approved by the EPA, they could work toward for improving their impaired waterways.

This early work would make it possible, in 2010, to set up the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. The Bay Program had an agreed-upon model, decades of monitoring data, state-specific but coordinated water quality standards and a trusting partnership. With those in place, the Bay Program would be able to put the nation’s largest TMDL in place that would be suited for the Bay, not based on generic or inconsistent standards.

An adapting partnership

While the original agreement was signed by representatives from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia, EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Commission in the 1990s, it became clear that the Bay could not be restored without the involvement of its headwater states.

Even though Maryland and Virginia have direct connections to the Bay, the watershed extends up to New York and out to Delaware and West Virginia. With the knowledge that they all have an impact on the Bay, those three states signed on to the most recent agreement in 2014.

Batiuk reflected on the benefits that the new partners bring to the Bay Program. “We found that they brought their own experiences working with farmers or working with localities, working with their folks in cities and townships and boroughs. By bringing them to the table, it just expanded our sense of what might work and what might not work in different places.”

At the same time, they received benefits from being part of the Bay Program. “The monitoring system expanded to include stations in their parts of the watershed,” he said. “They got to benefit from the tools that we built in terms of the science and the models. More recently, all seven jurisdictions got to have, for the first time in the United States, high-resolution, land cover data, wall to wall across their towns and cities and farmlands.”

Because of this state-level involvement, the Bay Program has always been a partnership. Every partner is part of the decision making. At its highest level of management — the Executive Council — there are nine people in charge: the governors of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the administrator of the EPA; and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. Decisions are made based on consensus or unanimous approval.

Since the beginning, residents and local governments have played a special role in the Bay Program. The partnership developed two advisory committees to the Executive Council, one for residents and one for local governments, so the voices of these two large stakeholder groups were always front and center in the partnership. At the same time, the partnership developed an advisory committee for science to ensure the voices of the scientists were never lost.

The partnership has expanded to include more federal involvement as well. The EPA has always acted as a representative for all federal agencies, but in 2010, President Obama signed an executive order calling on federal agencies to play a larger role in restoring the Bay.

“What the executive order really did was create an opportunity — and actually a demand — for our many federal partners to come to the table,” remarked Jim Edward, acting director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, who led the implementation of the executive order for the partnership. “It brought the Department of Defense and the Corps of Engineers to the table, as well as the National Park Service and other agencies you may not think about.”

Now, the Bay Program is learning how to adapt in a new way: management. As we learned through retrofitting the federal regulatory program, the Chesapeake Bay is a complex ecosystem with its own unique needs that we are only beginning to understand. The Bay Program partnership is set up to make decisions informed by the best available science, but these conditions can change, and we need to be flexible and understanding in a way that accommodates those changes.

Looking forward

The Bay Program has more than 30 years’ worth of monitoring data, but that doesn’t mean we know everything. This year’s record rainfall could put a damper on the progress we’ve seen in the past few years, so we are closely watching to see how the ecosystem reacts to it. We’re still monitoring to see what these impacts are, but thanks to our monitoring partnership, a network already exists, as well as ample data to compare it with.

We’re looking into a new source of information: residents. Through the Citizens Monitoring Cooperative, a project of the Bay Program, volunteer monitoring groups can learn how to collect quality data from their local streams, providing useful data to the jurisdictions and Bay Program for areas that we don’t have the capacity to monitor.

Along with collecting data, the partnership has stepped up its work to verify what pollution reduction measures, also known as best management practices, are in place. All of the states and DC have BMP verification processes that include initial inspection, follow-up checks and evaluation of performance.

This achievement helps state and local governments as well as the Bay Program know that restoration investments are maintained and sustainable. It also helps the Bay Program’s modelers estimate how much pollution is prevented from entering waterways, which is then cross-checked with the monitoring data.

For 35 years, the Chesapeake Bay Program has been running a relay race, passing the baton of science and restoration as we innovate, learn and adapt. Join us on the next leg of the race at chesapeakebay.net.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.