The Bay states have agreed to end wetland losses within the Chesapeake watershed and to develop plans - with specific restoration goals - over the next two years to bring back the critical resource.

The Bay Program has had a policy calling for a "no net loss" of wetlands within the watershed since 1989, yet officials say wetlands continue to be lost or degraded, impairing their ability to filter runoff and provide habitat.

"We are fooling ourselves if we are to believe that we can restore the health of this Bay without first reversing this trend," EPA Administrator Carol Browner said at the Oct. 30 Executive Council meeting.

To change that, the Executive Council approved a directive that will require each jurisdiction to not only halt the loss of wetlands, but to achieve a "net resource gain" in wetland acreage and function.

Although that has also been a Bay Program policy, the directive for the first time requires the states to develop restoration strategies and quantifiable goals that can be met by specific dates.

"We want to do more than just reduce the number of wetlands that are lost each year," Browner said. "We cannot be satisfied by simply stabilizing this situation."

The Council directed Bay jurisdictions to:

  • Complete jurisdiction-specific strategies for achieving "net gain" wetland goals by next year's Executive Council meeting. At a minimum, the strategies have to show how each jurisdiction will replace every acre of wetland lost each year "with an acre of wetland of similar ecological value." The strategies will be updated in 2000, and every five years thereafter.
  • Establish a quantifiable goal for increasing wetland acreage and function by the 1999 Executive Council meeting.

The directive also outlines steps to assist local efforts to protect wetlands, and to set up a better watershedwide tracking system to document wetland trends.

To promote locally based wetland restoration efforts, the Council wants to build upon the Wetlands Initiative launched by the Bay Program earlier this year. Under that initiative, the Bay Program is providing financial and technical expertise to local governments within one watershed in each state to help local officials and citizens develop wetland restoration and protection plans.

The Council directive calls on the Bay Program to develop a guide to community-based wetlands preservation and protection to be developed based on the lessons learned from those projects by 1999. The directive also calls for the Bay Program to provide further financial and technical assistance to community-based wetland protection efforts in the future.

"This is another recognition of the need to reach out to individual communities, and to give them what they need to support the Bay Program's current wetland policy," said Virginia Del. W. Tayloe Murphy, Jr., chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "If we are ever to achieve our goal of 'no net loss,' and realize a net gain, it will come through the cumulative effect of many small, yet significant, actions."

Echoing that theme, Browner also challenged "each and everyone of us to do everything in our power to restore wetlands. People can work in their own watersheds."

To determine whether the wetland goals are being met, the Council's directive acknowledged that the Bay Program needed to develop a better system for tracking wetland losses and gains in the watershed.

The exact status of wetlands within the Chesapeake basin is uncertain. A report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser-vice found that during the 1980s, the Bay watershed lost wetlands at a rate of nearly 3,000 acres a year.

Regulatory efforts in the last decade have sought to stem the rate of wetland losses, although it is generally thought that wetlands are continuing to disappear, though at a slower rate.

In part, that's because regulatory programs generally permit small wetland plots to be destroyed without replacement; wetlands may be destroyed or degraded by unregulated activities taking place outside their boundaries; and natural processes such as sea level rise and erosion may destroy wetlands faster than they are replaced.

At the same time, some wetlands are naturally returning as marginal farmlands are abandoned, and as a result of nonregulatory habitat protection and improvement programs being carried out by government and nonprofit groups.

To get a better picture of exactly what is happening to wetlands within the watershed, the Council called for the completion of new watershedwide inventory by January 1999 to serve as a "modern benchmark" by which wetland restoration efforts can be measured.

A wetland status and trends report is to be completed and published by January 2000, and updated every five years thereafter.