The Chesapeake Executive Council has endorsed a three-pronged program to preserve — and increase — wetlands in the watershed. It calls for restoring 25,000 acres of wetlands in the next decade, stemming losses through regulatory programs and helping communities permanently preserve wetlands and nearby areas.

The plan stems from a 1997 commitment by the Council to develop strategies to achieve a “net-gain” not only in wetland acreage, but also “function” — such as providing habitat or controlling runoff.

But rather than releasing an independent strategy, the proposed goal was included in the draft Chesapeake 2000 agreement, with a separate “endorsement” paper from the Council that spelled out more details.

“We need to preserve and restore wetlands,” EPA Administrator Carol Browner said of the proposal. “Wetlands are nature’s kidneys. They clean up the water before it gets into the Bay. Let’s continue the effort to preserve and restore the wetlands that are crucial to the health of this whole region and to the health of this Bay.”

Like other commitments in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, the wetland goals are open for public comment.

Still undetermined, is a final decision on how the 25,000-acre goal would be allocated among the states. Officials are discussing a formula based upon the amount of wetlands lost in each state. Within the Bay watershed, Maryland has lost about 1.15 million acres of wetlands since the 1780s, while Pennsylvania has lost 317,760 acres, and Virginia 429,785 acres, according to estimates by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. That means about 60 percent of the wetlands lost in the watershed have been in Maryland, 17 percent in Pennsylvania, and 23 percent in Virginia.

Based on that breakdown, Maryland would restore 15,000 acres, Pennsylvania 4,000 acres, and Virginia 6,000 acres.

No one knows exactly how many acres are being restored in the watershed at present; some estimates put the amount at about 1,200 acres annually. If so, the goal would roughly double the current rate of restoration activities.

In terms of acreage, the goal is a step back from ones discussed earlier. Last summer, officials considered an 83,000-acre restoration goal, but over a longer period of time — such as 2015 or later. [See “Wetlands goal: How many acres are enough?” Bay Journal, June 1999.] Officials later settled on the smaller goal, to be achieved in a shorter period of time.

Under the plan, three types of activities would count as restoration:

  • Re-establishment of a former wetland site to cause wetland conditions to return and persist on the site, such as removing drain tiles from a previously drained area.
  • Enhancement which results in long-term “sustainable” improvement of wetland functions. Examples might be restoring natural hydrology in an existing disturbed wetland, phragmites eradication or fencing to exclude livestock.
  • Creation of wetlands where they did not formerly exist.

Progress toward the restoration goal is to be evaluated every five years.

Besides restoring wetlands, the goal calls for achieving a no-net-loss of wetlands under regulatory programs. Although no-net-loss is a goal of those programs, many say they still result in losses, in part because small wetland areas are often allowed to be filled without requiring mitigation.

The goal also seeks to help preserve remaining wetlands and their functions by working with local governments and community groups to develop watershed-based wetland plans. The endorsement statement says that “many wetlands will not continue to perform their important ecosystem functions unless the landscapes upstream of those wetlands — their watersheds — are managed responsibly.”

Wetlands in different locations can provide a number of functions. They buffer streams by filtering runoff, they can provide habitat for birds, fish and other animals, they help recharge groundwater, hold floodwaters and play other roles.

While wetlands can be impacted directly by filling or draining, their functions can also be damaged indirectly by adjacent land use changes. For example, the loss of nearby trees may reduce habitat value while the paving of nearby areas may speed runoff and reduce the wetlands’ ability to filter water.

The plan calls for helping local communities identify important wetlands and functions, then working to protect them and the surrounding landscape through a variety of techniques, ranging from outright acquisition or purchase of easements, to promoting responsible watershed stewardship or providing tax incentives to private landholders.

The goal is to have plans implemented in 25 percent of the land area of each state’s portion of the Bay watershed by 2010.