When an unprecedented amount of Farm Bill money flows into the watershed this year, agencies involved in the Bay cleanup will have a new goal: Proving they can get the biggest nutrient reduction bang from each of the 23 million bucks.

That's a sharp change in course. In the past, cleanup spending has often been so broadly dispersed across the Bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed that it was nearly impossible to prove it was improving water quality.

Amid such criticism, federal agency officials have laid the groundwork to zero in on problem areas with their most effective nutrient runoff control measures like never before.

"With the Farm Bill, we are going to be on the hook to show progress," said Kelly Shenk, of the EPA's Bay Program Office. "If we don't target these programs geographically, or by practice, we won't get anywhere close to restoring the Bay."

This year's $23 million is the first of four installments under a four year, $188 million commitment in the 2008 Farm Bill to support Bay cleanup efforts. With unprecedented levels of funding going into targeted areas comes unprecedented opportunities to learn. Agencies hope to discover how to spur increased program involvement, while scientists are hoping to marry on-the-ground implementation with in-the-water monitoring efforts to gauge the ultimate impact of the actions.

"I believe this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for all of us," said Kevin Sellner, executive director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, which coordinates research by Bay-related institutions. "There has never been, and there may never be in the future, a field experiment like we are being offered here."

That opportunity-and the desire to show results-represents a seismic change in attitudes about targeting cleanup efforts.

As far back as 1990, participants in a Bay Program-sponsored conference called for better focusing nutrient reduction efforts. Virginia participants identified "ineffective targeting of resources" as an impediment to progress. Pennsylvania participants concurred, saying "targeting resources is underemphasized."

A 1998 Bay Program report outlined protocols for establishing priority areas for nutrient and sediment reductions.

Yet targeting never became policy. Part of the reason was that as 2000 approached, it became apparent that far greater nutrient and sediment control efforts would be needed to clean up the Bay than what was previously thought. Calls for prioritizing areas were replaced with the notion that "everything by everybody everywhere" was needed to clean the Bay. In that context, targeting seemed to be a moot point.

Possibly more importantly, the "targeting of fiscal resources and technical assistance was not too popular to begin with," noted Tom Simpson, who chaired the Bay Program's Nutrient Subcommittee at the time, and now heads the nonprofit organization Watershed Stewardship.

Politically, agencies have generally preferred to spread public dollars around, rather than concentrate them in a few areas. As a result, money spent for land-based nutrient reduction efforts, whether in urban, suburban or agricultural settings, was typically spent opportunistically. In fact, previous versions of the federal Farm Bill even discouraged efforts to target.

The result was a scattershot approach to runoff control. Program managers insist those actions have led to water quality improvements, but they were typically so dispersed it was difficult to show changes in water quality. When changes were seen, it was generally impossible to say which of the myriad changes taking place across the landscape was responsible.

As cleanup cost estimates climbed as high as $30 billion, officials-and advocacy groups-began to realize that adequate resources might never materialize.

"We don't have the dollars, we don't have the people to support all the implementation, and we don't have the ability to make everyone everywhere do it," Simpson said. "All things being equal, you want to focus on the areas that will give you the most nutrient reduction per unit of effort."

Reinforcing that view were a series of harsh evaluations of Bay cleanup efforts. Among them were reports from Governmental Accountability Office and the Inspectors General from both the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture that specifically faulted Bay efforts for failing to better prioritize limited resources.

Only a few years ago, when the Bay Program conducted a workshop on targeting, "we were getting a lot of resistance," said Scott Phillips, Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey. Now, he said, "it is almost accepted that we need to prioritize what we are going to do, and where we are going to do it."

Under pressure from Congress to produce a comprehensive cleanup plan or lose millions of dollars in funding, the EPA Bay Program Office last year released a "Chesapeake Action Plan." It sought to coordinate and target efforts of multiple agencies in a way that would show results and be monitored to better learn what does-and does not-work. By using "adaptive management," agencies can adjust future efforts based on lessons learned.

The USGS began an effort with the Bay Program to compile existing information to help target efforts several years ago, but the initiative gained urgency with the Chesapeake Action Plan.

The result was the Chesapeake Online Adaptive Support Toolkit-or COAST-a web-based system that provides information from multiple sources specifically to help target actions and assess results.

Ultimately, COAST is designed to be a one-stop shop to help agencies, nonprofits, local governments and others prioritize and coordinate their efforts. It incorporates information about water quality to help identify problem areas, organizations active in particular locations so potential government or nonprofit partners can be identified, ongoing monitoring that might be used to assess results, and more.

Targeting is not limited to farmland. Plans are in the works that could prioritize wetland restoration in areas that would benefit both birds and water quality. Other efforts may try to better locate streamside forest buffers where they will maximize benefits to habitat and water quality, or prioritize forests for protection.

"This gives you integrated information and tools to make more effective decisions," Shenk said. "Hopefully we can accelerate our progress just by being more efficient in how we spend our money."

That's encouraged by the four-year, $188 million Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative in the 2008 Farm Bill, which urged that the funds be prioritized geographically.

Drawing on multiple sources of information, areas in each state were considered for prioritization if they were "hot spots" for nutrients and sediment reaching the Bay, had local water quality problems, and farming was the primary land use.

While the money is available throughout the Chesapeake watershed, projects in priority areas will get bonus points when projects are ranked for funding. (Traditional, non-Bay specific Farm Bill conservation programs are available throughout the watershed.)

"Usually we are looking at statewide implementation, so we look for a good distribution of participants and being able to use all of our programs. This is a bit different for us," said Craig Derickson, Pennsylvania state conservationist for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "It is not business as usual."

Still, targeting alone does not guarantee success. In 2005, Maryland pledged to target restoration efforts in its Corsica River watershed. But implementation lags below expected levels.

Although specific goals aren't being set for priority watersheds, Derickson said he would like the majority of farmers to adopt a conservation system and have some level of participation.

That's important because, as a rule of thumb, many scientists believe that about half of the land in a watershed needs to be treated with runoff controls, known as best management practices or BMPs, before a change is likely to be detected in water quality.

To reach those levels, Derickson and others hope to target not only funds to watersheds, but also outreach efforts. Traditionally, many conservation programs rely on farmers coming to offices seeking assistance. To get high levels of participation, more people will need to be on the ground promoting the programs.

In one of the Pennsylvania watersheds, Conowago Creek, researchers from Penn State University are bringing together state and federal agencies, county conservation districts, watershed organizations, nonprofits and others in a coordinated effort to promote both the new Bay initiative, along with other conservation initiatives, to farmers and forest owners.

The project is working to identify what information leads to increased participation by landowners. That can lead to outreach programs for other areas.

"This is a year of conservation opportunity," Derickson said. "We have assistance funds available in several conservation program, including the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative. It's sort of a great experiment to see if the farmers and our staffs will respond to the opportunity."

Not all of the concerns about targeting have been erased, though. It has drawbacks, especially because it sends the message to some areas that their efforts are not important.

"It sounds good," said Jim Curatolo, watershed coordinator for the Upper Susquehanna Coalition. "They go to Congress. They look at a map with some red subwatersheds and say, 'That's where we're going to spend our money.'"

That approach disenfranchises the rest of the watershed, he said. "You take 80 percent of the basin out of the picture and say, 'Go away,'" Curatolo said. "You can apply, but you won't get the extra points. You aren't going to get anything."

That can strain partnerships such as his coalition of 16 New York and three Pennsylvania counties which historically has shared resources and worked together to address issues. If a disproportionate amount of money is targeted to just a couple of counties, Curatolo worries that others will lose their incentive to participate. "Why should they come to our meetings?" he asked.

But the hardest part about targeting, ironically, may be showing measurable results-the reason for targeting to begin with. While it will be possible to count how many BMPs are installed, and compare that to other watersheds, showing a change in water quality will require patience.

From the time concentrated efforts are launched, it could take three to five years, or even longer, to see changes in water quality. It can take years for some practices, such as streamside buffers, to become fully effective. In many watersheds, much of the nitrogen moves through slow-moving groundwater, delaying the impact of management actions for years.

Natural variation in streamflow can make changes in water quality hard to detect unless they are substantial.

Understanding the factors affecting water quality helps managers better assess the effectiveness of their actions and policies, which is critical to guide future efforts, Phillips said. "If you are not monitoring and learning about what affects water-quality response, you are not doing adaptive management, which will lead to more effective decision making to improve the ecosystem," he said.

That could complicate the program, though, because it means agencies would have to keep funding the new conservation programs in the same watersheds, rather than rotating them from year to year.

It's an issue agriculture officials are struggling with. "Our strategy was to rotate through these watersheds as we have these funds that are only authorized for the next four years," Derickson said. "But I think that is a question that we have to revisit."