Federal auditors have concluded that the Bay Program has not answered the most fundamental question about the Chesapeake: How is the Bay doing?

Although the Bay Program has scores of indicators and measurements about everything from the status of crabs and ducks to dissolved oxygen and forest buffers, the investigators said it has failed to integrate those into a comprehensive picture of the Bay’s current health, or the status of restoration efforts.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also said the Bay Program’s “State of the Chesapeake Bay” reports fail to clarify that picture because they mix computer projections of future Chesapeake conditions with the monitoring of current conditions. As a result, the reports make it difficult for the public to determine whether the Bay is improving or not and sometimes depict a “rosier picture” than may be warranted, the GAO said.

Moreover, the Bay Program has aggressive goals for cleaning up the Chesapeake but does not have comprehensive, coordinated implementation strategies to attain those goals, the GAO said. In addition, it said, many agree that plans to reach the Bay Program’s cornerstone goal—achieving Bay water quality objectives by 2010—are unachievable.

The Bay Program’s inability to present a “clear and credible” picture of what the restoration effort has achieved and the failure to have comprehensive and realistic implementation plans “is undermining the success of the restoration effort and potentially eroding public confidence and continued support,” the GAO warned.

In written responses, Bay Program partners said they were moving to improve their reporting on Bay health—a major overhaul is planned for next year—and offered some support for more comprehensive planning.

The review was requested last year by Sens. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, and John Warner, R-VA, after a report in the Washington Post that said the Bay Program had “significantly overstated” its accomplishments.

In response to the GAO report, the senators sent a letter to President Bush saying that the report “raises serious concerns about the Bay Program’s ability to achieve the goal of restoring the health of the Bay.”

They asked for the establishment of a White House task force to conduct a “top-to-bottom review of all federal programs, resources and regulatory tools that can be directed toward expediting restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.”

They said although the states and federal agencies had made a “substantial investment” in the Bay’s restoration over the last decade, a better-coordinated approach was needed to meet cleanup goals.

“Appointing a White House Task Force and issuing an Executive Order immediately would help ensure that expedited and coordinated decision-making occurs and that your Administration’s budgets and other policies appropriately reflect the importance and scope of this endeavor,” the senators wrote.

The Bay Program is a partnership established in the 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement between the federal EPA; the states of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the District of Columbia; and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three states. The EPA, through its Bay Program Office in Annapolis, provides overall support for the partnership and helps to coordinate other federal activities affecting the Bay.

The GAO said that “restoring the Chesapeake Bay is a massive, complex, and difficult undertaking” and that its success relies on well-coordinated and managed implementation.

Given the billions of dollars spent on the Bay cleanup—the GAO estimated $5.6 billion was spent by state and federal agencies from 1995 through 2004—and the billions more that are needed, the report said the public should have access to reliable information about the health of the Bay and the status of restoration efforts.

The GAO said the Bay Program had failed to do that, and auditors focused their attention on the “State of the Chesapeake Bay” report, which is published every two to four years to provide the public with a snapshot of the Bay’s health.

The GAO said the reports provide a variety of information about individual Bay species or water quality parameters but do not provide an integrated assessment of ecosystem health, and often fail to present adequate context to interpret the data.

An expert panel assembled by the GAO concluded that “the public would probably not be able to easily and accurately assess the current condition of the Bay from the information reported.”

The GAO said the credibility of the reports was undermined because the Bay Program “commingles” three types of information:

  • Monitoring information, such as fish stock abundance or nutrient concentrations in rivers.
  • Results of management actions, such as progress toward meeting wetland restoration goals.
  • Results from computer models that predict what might happen in the future based on various management actions.

Computer models and the implementation of management actions “do little to inform readers about the current health status of the Bay and tend to downplay the Bay’s actual condition,” the GAO said.

Further, the Bay Program has not established an independent review process to ensure the objectivity and accuracy of its reports. The expert panel said that would “significantly improve the credibility” of the reports.

“The officials who manage and are responsible for the restoration effort also analyze, interpret, and report the data to the public,” the report said. “…We believe this lack of independence in reporting has led to the Bay Program projecting a rosier view of the health of the Bay than may have been warranted.”

The auditors said representatives of two signatories to the Bay agreements said positive reports were important for sustaining political and public support for the cleanup effort. “Therefore, the Bay Program has an incentive to present the most positive picture to the public of the progress that has been made in restoring the bay’s health,” the report said.

Further, the GAO said that although the Chesapeake 2000 agreement establishes an overall strategic vision for the restoration, the Bay Program lacks an overall management strategy to provide a road map for accomplishing goals set forth in the agreement.

States have developed tributary strategies to achieve nutrient and sediment goals, while the Bay Program as a whole has developed work plans or strategies to meet individual goals or commitments. But the Bay Program has failed to develop a comprehensive, coordinated strategy that effectively targets its resources.

As a result, the report noted, the Toxics Subcommittee invested significant resources to develop a detailed work plan for achieving toxics commitments in Chesapeake 2000, but the Bay Program has not been able to implement the plan because personnel and funding have not been available.

Similarly, the GAO noted, significant time was spent developing a strategy to implement the Chesapeake 2000 goal of achieving a tenfold increase in oysters by 2010, even though many believe the goal cannot be achieved, and is not adequately funded.

Other work plans conflict with each other. The Bay Program has strategies to meet wetland and streamside forest restoration goals that are less aggressive than restoration actions called for in state tributary strategies.

In addition, the GAO said that a number of Bay Program participants noted that the state tributary strategies were not feasible, particularly given the time frames and current funding levels. Some told the GAO that the lack of realistic plans based on available resources “has discouraged partners and stalled the restoration effort.”

The GAO acknowledged difficulties in effective planning because of uncertainty over the amount of funding that will be available from year to year.

The report said the Bay Program Office recognized the “fundamental gap” between needed actions and the current resources. Officials told the GAO that the development of an overall implementation plan that takes into account available resources had been discussed, but that no agreement could be reached among the partners.

The GAO recommended that the EPA administrator instruct the Bay Program Office to work with other partners in developing an overall, coordinated implementation strategy that unifies the programs and various planning documents and establishes a means to target limited resources to ensure that the most effective and realistic work plans are developed and implemented.

On a positive note, the GAO said that with more than two decades of restoration experience, the Bay Program was “well-positioned” to seriously re-evaluate how it reports information to the public.

In addition, it said the long-term partnership is uniquely positioned to “undertake a hard look at what strategies have been the most cost-effective and beneficial to the restoration effort and use this information to not only inform their future actions, but also to ensure that they are not developing strategies that will be at cross-purposes or develop unrealistic implementation plans that do not reflect available resources.”

In response, Bay Program partners noted that they are planning to release a retooled reporting program next year that will clearly separate reporting on the condition of the Bay and its resources, and the status of management actions. The GAO said it was “encouraged” by the effort.

In his comments, EPA Regional Administrator Donald Welsh said the Bay Program is aligning management plans to better take advantage of available resources by finding the most cost-effective actions.

Several Bay partners stressed that trying to communicate the condition of a complex ecosystem is a challenging job. “The Chesapeake Bay is a very complicated ecosystem and it is critical that characterizing the health of the Bay not be oversimplified,” said Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Ronald Franks.

And some disputed the GAO’s use of the word “credible” in depicting Bay Program reports, saying it suggested the information was not accurate, as opposed to being placed in an inappropriate context.

States also stressed that any effort to develop comprehensive management plans should recognize that states need flexibility to operate “within their own cultural, legal and political environments,” as stated by Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy.

Some also noted that states have recently taken action to increase Bay funding and that the federal government needed to do the same.

Copies of the report, “Chesapeake Bay Program: Improved Strategies are Needed to Better Assess, Report, and Manage Restoration Progress,” are available on the GAO’s web site, www.gao.gov, and the Bay Program web site, www.chesapeakebay.net

For information about the Bay Program’s planned changes in its reporting process, see “How’s the Bay doing? Ask me again next March,” Notes from the Director’s Chair,” November 2005.

Direct & Indirect Spending on the Bay’s Restoration

The General Accountability Office report contained the most complete analysis to date of how much money has been spent to restore the Bay.

It estimated that $3.7 billion in direct funding was provided to restore the Bay from 1995 through 2004. An additional $1.9 billion in indirect funding was also provided for activities that affect the restoration effort.

The direct funding came from 11 key federal agencies, the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The states typically provide 75 percent of the direct funding.

Also, funding has grown over the years, from $148.6 million in total direct funding in 1995 to $486.6 million in 2004. Funding peaked in 2002 at $558.2 million.

The indirect funding was split more or less equally between federal and state governments. It includes programs that help the Bay cleanup, but would provide funding regardless of the Chesapeake Bay commitments.

These include many farm programs that pay farmers to implement practices that reduce runoff. Most of Pennsylvania’s funding was indirect because, although many programs supported Bay goals, they were not the programs’ primary purpose.

Indirect funding has also increased over the years, from $131.6 million in 1995 to $343.2 million in 2004.