In recent years, the state-federal Bay Program partnership has undergone reviews from the EPA's Inspector General, the Congressional Governmental Accountability Office and several other organizations - more than two dozen in all.

Now, it's getting a review it asked for itself.

The Executive Council-the top policy-making panel for the Bay cleanup effort-last November announced that it would hire an independent evaluator to provide the Bay Program with ongoing external reviews.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said at the meeting that such a outside panel would "increase the efficiency, the effectiveness, the openness, the transparency and accountability of our restoration work." It is difficult, he added, for any organization to objectively evaluate itself.

Many of the other reviews were critical of various Bay Program actions, resulting in sometimes harsh news accounts.

By having an independent evaluator, officials hope to get ongoing outside advice about program shortcomings and solutions. The EPA has contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to coordinate the effort, and in October the National Research Council, an arm of the academy, named a nine-member review committee.

The committee will begin meeting in December. Among the initial issues it will examine:

  • Is tracking the implementation of nutrient control best management practices reliable, accurate and consistent among the states, and how can tracking be improved? Tracking the implementation of BMPs is one of the main ways the Bay Program assesses progress toward reaching nutrient reduction goals.
  • Are the initial two-year nutrient reduction milestones established by the states in May likely to achieve their goals on time?
  • Do the states and federal agencies have adaptive management strategies that ensure nutrient reduction goals will be met?
  • What improvements can be made to nutrient reduction strategies to help achieve Bay Program goals?

The initial review is expected to be completed in early 2011, in time to weigh in on the effectiveness of the first set of milestones developed by each state, which are to supposed to be fully implemented by the end of that year.

Unlike the other reviews, this one will be carried out by a team of scientists and others selected specifically for the job, and who specialize in the types of issues facing the Bay and restoration efforts. As a result, despite the plethora of earlier reviews, officials hope it will provide new insights.

"We view it as useful information," said Julie Winters, of the EPA Bay Program's Office. "At this point, when it comes down to saving the Bay, all qualified opinions are welcome at the table."

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, who served on a review team for the Everglades restoration project and offered advice for the creation of the Bay panel, said independent reviews can both validate the effectiveness of programs, and offer fresh perspectives and approaches for dealing with problems.

"If they point out some problems in how we are accounting for progress and they can point to better ways for doing it, it has both the stature of an academy committee and as an independent voice that is hard to completely ignore," Boesch said. "These criticisms put forth are sometimes inconvenient and upsetting, but they really are necessary in any kind of undertaking, especially one as complex and important as this one is."

Members named to the review committee include Kenneth Reckhow, professor of water resources at Duke University, who will chair the committee; Richard Budell, director of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Office of Agricultural Water Policy; Dominic Di Toro, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Delaware; James Galloway, associate dean for the sciences and professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia; Holly Greening, director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program; Patricia Norris, Guyers-Seevers chair in natural resource conservation at Michigan State University; Andrew Sharpley, professor of soils and water quality at the University of Arkansas; Adel Shirmohammadi, associate dean for research in the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources; and Paul Stacey, director of the planning and standards division in the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Water Management.