Mid-November was a tough time for the Bay Program. First, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation scored the estuary’s health as a “D” for the third year in a row. The Bay’s condition, the environmental group said, was actually slightly worse than it was in 2000 when the region agreed to a 10-year cleanup plan.

Days later, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Bay Program’s own assessments of the Bay’s condition were overly rosy. It further said the state-federal cleanup effort lacked a coordinated strategy to achieve its goals.

Against that backdrop, the Chesapeake Executive Council—the top policy-making body for the state-federal Bay cleanup effort— gathered for its annual meeting Nov. 29, with its members vowing that better days are ahead.

“Nobody can live with that transcript,” Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who was elected to chair the council for the coming year, said of CBF’s annual report card. “We need a better transcript.”

“We read the GAO report,” he added. “We know it speaks to the need for greater accountability.”

With Maryland’s “flush tax” taking effect, the passage of two environmental bond issues in Pennsylvania, and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner proposing the largest single investment for water quality improvement in state history, the governors said they were poised to ramp up cleanup efforts. “I think we are close to that breakthrough moment,” Warner said.

And in the past year, council members pointed out, the EPA and the states agreed to establish nutrient discharge limits for all large wastewater treatment plants and industries, which will result in substantial nutrient reductions throughout the watershed.

“If 2005 was recognized as the year we collectively moved ahead with effective strategies to cut pollution from wastewater treatment plants, then 2006 will be the year that we take major steps to accelerate our efforts in the agricultural arena,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, the outgoing council chair.

The Executive Council includes the governors of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.

Agriculture is the largest single source of nutrients to the Chesapeake, and tributary strategies developed by the states to guide cleanup efforts call for the greatest reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to come from farms.

To help boost efforts, the council adopted a new strategy to control pollution from animal manure and poultry litter. The strategy calls for reducing nutrient pollution from animal wastes by working with farmers to improve feed management and developing new markets for manure—including a goal of requiring federal and state agencies to use manure for at least 20 percent of the fertilizer applied to public lands.

Unlike the wastewater treatment controls, which are regulations, the manure strategy is voluntary. Success in achieving the goals and other agricultural nutrient reduction objectives will largely hinge on whether the region can boost funding for incentive programs that help farmers pay the bill to plant nutrient-absorbing cover crops, install streamside buffers or take other conservation actions.

Right now, the federal Farm Bill is the most important source of funding for conservation programs—providing about $66 million to watershed farmers last year—but four out of five farmers in the region who want to participate are turned away because of lack of money.

“I know if we invest in farmers and agriculture, they want to do this,” said Pennsylvania State Sen. Mike Waugh, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “They want to do this, they want to participate. But we, the policy makers and funders, have to help. That is the key.”

In a private meeting earlier in the day, the Executive Council met with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mark Johanns to present the strategy, along with a report that stemmed from a series of meetings with farmers and stakeholder groups which outlines ways to improve agricultural conservation programs when Congress and the administration write the next Farm Bill, scheduled for 2007.

“We wanted to impress upon him the importance that we place on both a healthy agricultural sector and healthy local watersheds,” Rendell said.

Whether council members can make an impact in Washington, D.C. remains to be seen. A year ago, the governors vowed a concerted effort to secure increased federal funding for the cleanup effort. That was followed about a month later by Ehrlich and Warner meeting with senators and congressmen from the region. But overall federal funding for Bay-related initiatives ended up being cut in 2006 spending bills.

“They only spent a few hours together on Capital Hill lobbying,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We think it’s going to take a more concerted effort than that.”

Warner acknowledged after the meeting that “we need to keep lobbying.” He said it was “ironic” that federal funding was being cut at the same time states were stepping up their spending. “When the states were stepping up, I had real hopes of seeing a greater funding commitment from the federal government,” Warner said.

But criticisms were not coming just from the outside. The Bay Program’s own Citizens Advisory Committee presented the council with a report that criticized the states for not having completed plans to show how their tributary strategies will be implemented.

The advisory committee, which represents a variety of stakeholder group from the watershed, said the plans are needed so citizens can determine whether each jurisdiction is on track to meet its cleanup goals.

“The credibility of the Chesapeake Bay Program rests on the successful finalization and implementation of the tributary strategies,” the committee said in its report. “No further delays can be accepted.”

It also called for renewed efforts to create a multijurisdictional financing authority that would pool some Bay cleanup money to help pay for the most beneficial restoration activities throughout the watershed.

Such an authority was recommended by a Blue Ribbon Chesapeake Bay Watershed Finance Panel in 2004, and a year ago the council appointed a new committee to study the feasibility of establishing such a finance authority

After that committee endorsed the concept last summer, senior state and federal officials decided to appoint another panel to report in more detail on legal issues that need to be addressed to create such an authority. Its report is due in 2007.

The advisory committee said the Executive Council needed to step up the pace. “While we acknowledge the amount of effort required to establish such an authority, the citizens call upon you to expedite this process,” it said. “It is critical that financial experts be appointed to lead us in this task.”

For information about the manure management strategy, see “Feed plan takes a bite out of farm nutrients” and “Bay Program unveils strategy to find uses for, reduce manure,” December 2005.

For information about the Farm Bill report, see “Report outlines regional issues for next Farm Bill,” December 2005.

Council adopts fisheries ecosystem management report

The Chesapeake Executive Council formally committed itself to moving toward ecosystem-based fisheries management at its November meeting.

It approved a statement committing itself to using a report, “Fisheries Ecosystem Planning for Chesapeake Bay,” as a guidance document in developing future fishery management plans and making other fisheries-related decisions.

The report was developed by a team of scientists coordinated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office.

It is a strategic document that offers advice on how to make incremental steps away from traditional fisheries management, which historically focuses on individual species, toward an ecosystem approach that seeks to account for how management actions aimed at one species may impact other species—or the overall ecosystem. When faced with uncertain information, the plan says managers should take a “precautionary approach” to minimize the potential to cause harm.

Principles of ecosystem-based management will be incorporated in the next Chesapeake Bay management plans for oysters, striped bass, blue crabs, shad and menhaden.

For information about the fisheries ecosystem plan, see New fisheries plans would put emphasis on ecosystems,” May 2004.