Troubled about the Bay's dirty water? The federal government has a fix for that which includes getting tougher with states and implementing new regulations.

Worried that waterbirds, oysters and even trout are running out of habitat? Federal agencies have a plan to target large-scale restoration efforts on species that reflect the health of important habitats.

Concerned that the region's landscape is changing so fast it will lose its historic sense of character? The feds say they can fix that, too, by leading a coordinated effort to permanently preserve areas that make the region unique.

It's part of what officials call a "new era of federal leadership" that pledges to target unprecedented federal assistance and resources on some of the greatest ills facing the Bay and its 64,000-square-mile watershed.

In November, they released a draft Bay strategy that not only pledges to restore water quality by 2025, but calls for a host of new initiatives, including programs that would put youths to work restoring habitat, permanently protect "treasured" landscapes and require stormwater controls on federal highways.

The 64-page document recognizes that the federal government, which owns 7.8 percent of the land in the watershed, cannot succeed alone. It calls for agencies to step up efforts to provide funding and technical assistance to landowners, local governments and watershed organizations that want to improve local water quality, conserve habitat and preserve land.

"Our collective actions will have a positive and unprecedented impact on the Chesapeake Bay," said Ann Mills, deputy secretary for natural resources and environment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"In fact, the benefits that will come from accelerating conservation efforts throughout the watershed will be seen and enjoyed first in the rural communities, farms and forests that are hundreds of miles away from the Bay."

The strategy was called for in an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in May that directed federal agencies to play a bigger role in the Bay's restoration. Seven federal departments or agencies helped to draft the strategy. It is open for public comment until Jan. 8, 2010. A final report is due in May.

The draft, released Nov. 9, was melded from seven reports covering different aspects of Bay and watershed restoration, from improving water quality to adapting for climate change. (See "7 reports direct federal agencies to take lead in Bay cleanup," October, 2009).

Nonetheless, the draft strategy contained a number of changes, including a commitment by the federal government to set two-year milestones that include measurable actions, a new section dealing with transportation-related issues and a few new specifics, such as promising to restore self-sustaining oyster populations in key tributaries by 2020.

But the strategy acknowledges that funding is a "significant consideration" to fulfilling its vision. The final report in May will describe its budget implications.

For the most part, the strategy lays out broad visions, only the water quality section has a clear goal-implementing needed actions to clean the Bay by 2025.

To do that, the EPA plans to assign nutrient and sediment limits to each state and require them to write implementation plans detailing the actions needed to achieve those limits. States must also set interim two-year goals, or milestones, to ensure they stay on track to meet the 2025 deadline. If states fall behind, the EPA could take a variety of actions.

In addition, the EPA said it would develop new regulations to control pollution sources. Specifically, it said it would:

  • expand regulatory authority to cover smaller concentrated animal feeding operations, and set tougher pollution control requirements for CAFOs;
  • increase the number of stormwater systems regulated under the municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) program, by expanding coverage to include high-growth areas. The rules would also set stronger minimum performance standards for those stormwater systems; and
  • ensure that new or expanded nutrient discharges are offset by reductions elsewhere to meet Bay water quality goals.

While the EPA said it would initiate the rule-making process, it added that the rules would not be implemented if Bay states develop their own programs to do the job.

"In the end, people in the Chesapeake region can trust that, in fact, there will be additional regulatory controls on major sources of pollution to the Chesapeake," said J. Charles "Chuck" Fox, senior adviser to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "Some of this will be done by federal rule-making, and some of it will likely be done by state rule-making moving forward."

That immediately drew fire from some environmental groups. Tommy Landers, policy advocate for Environment Maryland, called the draft strategy a "step backward."

"Today's draft strategy says new rule-makings would happen only if states don't significantly strengthen their own pollution control programs to meet water quality standards," he said. "But states have proven themselves incapable of that over the past 25 years."

The EPA will also work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement a Healthy Waters, Thriving Agriculture initiative aimed at controlling farm runoff-the largest single source of nutrients to the Bay-while ensuring that agriculture is profitable.

The USDA and EPA will better target their efforts to increase the use of the most effective nutrient control practices in high-priority watersheds. They also would work with federal, state and research institutions to develop "next generation" conservation tools. The EPA and USDA will also develop "centerpiece projects" in each of the Bay states to demonstrate innovate conservation approaches.

Federal agencies would also support the development of trading markets where farmers or foresters earn money for excess nutrient reductions, wetlands or habitat restoration, or actions that provide other ecological services.

The Department of Interior will lead a new Chesapeake Treasured Landscape Initiative, working with state, local and private groups to identify and conserve the most ecologically and culturally significant landscapes along the Bay and its rivers.

Those could include working landscapes such as farms, forests or fishing communities, as well as areas of unique historical value or vital wildlife habitats. The initiative also seeks to increase public access to the Bay and its rivers.

In addition, the department will consider buying land to protect areas and create public access opportunities. That could include new or expanded national parks, wildlife refuges, national historic trails or wild and scenic river designations.

The strategy thinks big when it comes to protecting and preserving habitats. "We want to scale up," said Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay Office. Many restoration projects, whether wetlands, underwater grasses or oyster reefs, fail in part because they are not large enough to withstand outside pressures. Small wetlands may be silted in; small oyster bars are susceptible to poaching; and underwater grass beds may be washed away.

"In oyster restoration, rather than having a lot of small projects, we'd like to have fewer large projects that have a better chance of becoming self-sustaining," Robertson said.

The strategy calls for a Baywide oyster plan that would establish self-sustaining oyster reef sanctuaries in key tributaries by 2020. It calls for identifying other key aquatic and terrestrial species that can serve as environmental indicators throughout the Bay and watershed so agencies could target their habitats for protection. In some cases, those actions would take place in concert with treasured landscapes or water quality initiatives.

To help agencies make better decisions and target actions, the strategy calls for creating an interagency hub to integrate scientific information from multiple agencies. It would also expand monitoring programs to not only include water quality information collected from rivers, streams and buoys in the Bay, but also information about habitats, land use, climate change and socioeconomic issues.

Eventually, that information should help officials to better predict the ecological results from their on-the-ground-and in-the-water-actions.

The strategy notes that climate change threatens both past restoration gains and the effectiveness of Bay and watershed restoration actions in the future. It said potential impacts of climate change on water quality should be factored into current decisions.

It also said agencies should coordinate efforts to help states and localities adapt to climate change through such things as updating sediment and erosion control guidance, stormwater management plans and floodplain maps. Agencies would also plan to protect critical habitats on federal lands that may be threatened.

In a new section, the strategy calls for the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure that all federal and federally funded highway construction and reconstruction projects in the watershed meet regulatory standards for stormwater runoff.

In addition, DOT and the EPA will work together to encourage state agencies to use federal transportation funding to retrofit existing highways to address stormwater and other water quality issues caused by transportation. The increased use of mass transit, bicycling and walking will be promoted to support livable and sustainable communities.

Federal agencies promise they will show "leadership by example." New development on federal land will use environmental site design techniques to try to maintain pre-existing hydrology; innovative stormwater controls will be used; and efforts will be made to control runoff from both paved and unpaved roads.

To bolster citizen action, the strategy envisions widespread public education programs, including social marketing campaigns, to encourage people to change their habits to protect the environment.

The Bay Program has made wide-ranging lists of promises before-most notably in the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement and the Chesapeake 2000 agreement-many of which were never fulfilled, and some not acted on at all.

Officials plan to spell out more specific implementation goals for all areas-not just water quality-which will be presented for public comment before the final report is released in May.

To hold themselves accountable, federal agencies will establish milestones, beginning in May 2011, that spell out the specific actions they will take to meet strategy goals in two-year increments. The hope is to achieve the strategy's overarching objectives by 2025.

The Bay Program will also launch ChesapeakeStat, modeled after Maryland's BayStat, to provide the public with web-based information about restoration activities, spending and progress. The strategy describes ChesapeakeStat as a "one-stop tool" to improve public accountability.

Beyond a 60-day public comment period, officials said they plan to host meetings with stakeholder groups and to get input from states to better align state and federal initiatives before releasing a final strategy in May.

"It is our view that this is a new era of federal leadership, but it is also our view that we have to do this in close partnership with state and local governments, as well as those in the private sector. We simply cannot succeed on our own," Fox said.

The strategy, other documents related to the executive order, and information about submitting public comments, can be found at http://executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/

Initiatives to Restore the Bay

The federal draft strategy for protecting & restoring the Bay includes eight initiatives & dozens of specific actions. The initiatives, & some of their actions, include:

Restoring & Sustaining Species & Habitat

  • Promote large-scale efforts to restore habitats.
  • Develop a comprehensive, Baywide ecological native oyster restoration strategy.
  • Promote the protection of key aquatic & terrestrial species & their habitats.
  • Support ecosystem-based fisheries management.
  • Establish long-term strategies to ensure sustainable blue crab populations of at least 200 million adult crabs.
  • Strengthen waterbird & shorebird conservation.

Chesapeake Treasured Landscape Initiative

  • Identify & prioritize culturally & ecologically significant landscapes & public access needs.
  • Coordinate federal funding to support state & local landscape conservation & public access.
  • Explore the creation & expansion of national parks, historic sites & wildlife refuges to protect significant landscapes & improve public access.
  • Provide incentives & assistance to private landowners to conserve priority landscapes.
  • Consider creating a Chesapeake Conservation Corps to mobilize citizen stewardship in conservation & restoration.

Chesapeake Farms & Forests for the 21st Century

  • Better integrate federal & state programs to provide technical assistance to farmers in priority watersheds.
  • Expand the range of incentives available, simplify program participation & encourage private sector investment in conservation actions.
  • Accelerate the development of new conservation technologies to expand the "toolbox" available to landowners.
  • Improve accountability by tracking progress & ensuring the federally supported conservation measures are maintained.
  • Develop market-based tools such as nutrient-trading programs.

Reducing Pollution & Restoring Water Quality

  • Require states to develop Watershed Implementation Plans showing how they will meet nutrient reduction goals through permits, regulations or enforceable agreements.
  • Require states to develop two-year milestones stating actions they will take to keep nutrient reductions on track.
  • Write rules to cover concentrated animal feeding operations, stormwater & new or expanded discharges of nutrients & sediments.
  • Work with the USDA to target the most effective agricultural conservation practices in watersheds where they will have the greatest impact on the Bay.

Coordinate Tools & Services for Strategic Decision-Making

  • Establish an interagency Decision Support Hub to integrate information from multiple agencies & develop tools to help federal, state & local agencies use that information.
  • Establish a Chesapeake Monitoring Observing system that expands beyond water quality monitoring to cover species, habitats, land use & climate change.
  • Conduct research to understand & forecast ecosystem changes to help assess the effectiveness of management actions.

Strategy for Chesapeake Communities & Resources to Adapt to Climate Change

  • Make a concerted effort to coordinate climate change science & adaptation among agencies throughout the watershed.
  • Determine how climate change affects today's decisions regarding the Bay's restoration.
  • Assess the vulnerability of federal assets & habitats for fish & wildlife to sea-level rise & changing conditions in the watershed.

Federal Leadership by Example

  • Strengthen stormwater management to maintain pre-development hydrology for new development & redevelopment.
  • Institute practices to control erosion on undeveloped lands.

Planning for livable Communities

  • Require any new federal or federally funded highway to meet stormwater standards.
  • Encourage states to use some of their federal highway funds to retrofit existing highways to control stormwater & other water quality issues.
  • Host a series of forums to promote planning that integrates transportation, land use, housing & water infrastructure.