Once a year, members of the Chesapeake Executive Council gather together to discuss the successes and challenges of restoring the Chesapeake Bay. A mere 30 miles from the shores of the Bay, this year’s meeting site, Oxon Hill Manor, played host to representatives from Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia (watershed jurisdictions), as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, on Sept. 5.

Oxon Hill Manor not only overlooks the Potomac River, one of the major tributaries flowing into the Bay, but is at the intersection of three significant stakeholders in Bay restoration — Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

As the coordinator of the Executive Council meeting planning committee, I have the unique advantage of seeing all of the components that go into making this meeting a success each year. The planning committee is made up of representatives from all the Bay watershed jurisdictions, the EPA, Bay Commission and the three Chesapeake Bay Program advisory committees  representing scientific and technical, citizen, and local government interests. This year, we knew that our number one focus would be on the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans. The 2019 meeting came at a pivotal time as the watershed jurisdictions had submitted their final Phase III WIPs to the EPA only two weeks earlier.

The Phase III WIPs outline the actions that each watershed jurisdiction intends to take to reduce pollution flowing into the Bay. Each has a specific target, or the amount of pollution that needs to be reduced for a clean and healthy Bay, to meet by 2025 under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or Bay TMDL.

In addition to the Bay TMDL, the partnership is governed by the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement — 10 goals and 31 outcomes that offer the full spectrum of what is needed to ensure a healthy watershed and restored Bay. These outcomes detail everything from brook trout to environmental literacy, and the majority of them offer multiple benefits in addition to helping to improve water quality. While Bay Program partners are making significant progress in meeting many of the outcomes, there are a few that need some help.

The planning committee chose speakers for this year’s meeting that would address some of the outcomes that need attention, while also highlighting some of the more innovative approaches that watershed jurisdictions plan to take to help reduce their pollutant loads.

Most importantly, the chosen speakers would make the connection of the importance of using pollutant reduction strategies in their Phase III WIPs that would meet both Watershed Agreement outcomes and Bay TMDL goals.

Planting forest buffers and restoring wetlands, especially on agricultural lands, are two areas our partnership sorely needs to improve. In 2017, only 56 miles of buffers were planted throughout the watershed, achieving 6% of the goal to plant 900 miles of buffers per year. Also in 2017, only 9,103 acres of wetlands were restored, meeting 11% of the goal to create or re-establish 85,000 acres of wetlands.

Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, reminded the council that “forest buffers are critical for a number of reasons.” He touted their importance by listing such attributes as their ability to stabilize stream banks, provide wildlife habitat, cool waters and meet nutrient reduction goals. But he also acknowledged the many road bumps along the way, whether it be permits, funding or other issues.

Stiles remarked that without an acceleration of wetland restoration and buffer plantings, it is extremely unlikely that the watershed jurisdictions would meet their Bay TMDL goals. Additionally, he noted how critical these two practices are for the future of our watershed as climate continues to change.

The District of Columbia took a unique approach in planning their Phase III WIPs, choosing to focus on the importance of investing in their residents through green job training programs to help meet their pollutant reduction goals.

Queen Richardson of the Alliance of the Chesapeake Bay spoke to the Council about her personal experience with DC’s green job training programs. Richardson described her experiences with RiverCorps, a five-month job training program aimed at getting young adults, ages 18–24, experience with the green sector, and the Green Zone Environmental summer internship program that further exposed her to critical environmental issues and topics.

These experiences eventually led to her position as a RiverSmart Homes program assistant with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Richardson reflected that she “did not expect to be doing this type of work” but is so happy that she’s been given the chance.

“A healthy resilient ecosystem is not just about the pounds of pollution reduced,” Richardson reminded the council. “It’s about connecting youth to their communities and natural places, even in the middle of a city, and creating pathways to careers that will last a lifetime.”

The resounding message at the meeting was one that celebrated the success of each watershed jurisdiction in their accomplishments of completing their Phase III WIP. But it also carried a reminder that there is still a lot of work ahead of us.

Reducing pollution is necessary for a clean Bay, but it’s not the only factor. Actions on land have just as much value in restoring and maintaining a healthy watershed, and the impacts of climate change can’t be overlooked.

In the end, it was Executive Council Chair and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who said it best, “this partnership stands at a critical juncture, with seven jurisdictional plans and the goal of clean water in sight. After three decades of collaboration with our federal and regional partners, we are witnessing significant improvements toward clean water and increased resiliency, but there is more work to be done.”

Rachel Felver is the Chesapeake Bay Program's Communications Director at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. 

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