The last few months have been a busy time for the Bay Program, but much of the work is behind the scenes. Many committees, subcommittees, work groups and task forces are trying to set out the tasks ahead so we can meet the range of new goals and commitments in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement.
It is a daunting task, with nearly a hundred specific benchmarks that need to be met, some in the relatively near future. For all of them, this is also a period of agreeing on terms and definitions and setting baselines from which to measure progress.
Not all of the work has been out of the limelight. In December, the Executive Council approved the first work product of the new agreement, a comprehensive Toxics Strategy. This takes the general directions in the Bay Agreement and fleshes them out, including the voluntary zero discharge goal for point sources, the phaseout of mixing zones by 2010 and reductions in toxic loadings from stormwater.
And, Maryland and Virginia have reached a general agreement on a harvest target for blue crabs, calling for a 15 percent reduction in harvests to assure a viable population of crabs in the Bay. This was to be done in 2001, but the Bi-State Blue Crab Committee completed its recommendations by year’s end.
Much of the rest of the work has gone into shaping the effort to achieve goals in the future. For example, the plan to permanently preserve 20 percent of the land area of the watershed by 2010 is well under way.
The Bay Program partners have a baseline computation of existing protected areas that sets the remaining area to protect at 1.1 million acres. The Trust for Public Lands has completed a study for the Chesapeake Bay Commission which evaluates existing state and federal programs for preservation, concludes that at the present level of effort they will achieve half of the goal and recommends a series of actions for each state to help close the gap.
In addition, a special task force of the Bay Program is on schedule to complete an assessment of forests, farms and wetlands in the basin by the end of this year to help identify the most vulnerable and valuable lands for preservation.
We are even able to put some numbers on the most far-reaching and innovative goal of the Bay Agreement, the commitment to reduce the rate of loss of forests and farms to sprawl development by 30 percent by 2012.
Based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Inventory, part of the Agricultural Census taken every five years, we can now set the 1992-97 watershedwide baseline called for in the agreement. Annual losses during that period were nearly 128,000 acres. To reduce that by 30 percent by 2012 means cutting the land lost to development to about 90,000 acres per year. The size of this challenge is made even more manifest by further data showing that the annual rate of loss has climbed precipitously from 60,000 acres per year in the 1982–87 period, to 78,000 acres per year in the 1987–92 period to the baseline of 128,000 acres in 1992-97.
This trend confirms what many have been citing as an enormous increase in the rate of land lost to development in the region in recent years, and the need to deal with sprawl if we are ever to save the Chesapeake.
To turn around that trend and even bring it back to where it was a little more than a decade ago will take a combination of enlightened local governments and basic changes in values about how we want to live.
Work is proceeding apace in other areas of the agreement. The plan to restore oyster reefs and increase the oyster biomass by 10 times the 1994 level by 2010 is well under way. Funding goals for reef construction have been set for $10 million per year for the next 10 years, and the first-year funding levels have nearly reached that point.
There is a tremendous amount of consensus around this goal, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found out at a recent meeting to coordinate all the efforts. When the Corps proposed to take a big chunk of their money to hire a consultant to ask the experts what should be done, the others in the room asked the Corps to simply ask them instead, as they were the experts, and to put the money into reefs instead of consultants. There could be a lot of unforeseen benefits here in the way agencies work, and work together.
As called for in the agreement, a task force has been established that is composed of a wide range of interests to seek strong national legislation to deal with exotic species and ballast water, and to develop an interim voluntary program for ships using the Chesapeake.
Progress is being made in the public access area, as well. The baseline and definitions for the 30 percent increase in access points has been completed. The National Park Service has identified more than 30 new interpretive sites with the naming of Chesapeake Gateways. And the water trails goal for 2005 is virtually in sight.
Having said all that, there are a still a number of areas where we have major conceptual challenges. This is especially true where we are striking out into new territory, trying approaches that haven’t been done elsewhere, at least to the degree to which we are undertaking them.
Our basic structure for dealing with nutrients and sediments, to remove the impairments in the Bay by 2010, is set out in the agreement. But no one has ever tried to reset designated uses, develop end-point criteria, convert the criteria requirements to riverine loadings, develop allocations within each river system, and accomplish the necessary reductions voluntarily at anything near the scale we are operating at. We are on schedule and working together across six states and the District of Columbia, but many steps lie ahead, some over loose rocks.
At the same time, we are also pushing the intellectual limits to achieve integrated fisheries management through multispecies plans and an overall ecosystem approach. Our knowledge of the role potentially played in the Bay’s restoration by oyster reefs, menhaden and other species is at an elementary level, but, once again, there’s no one else out there to teach us so we will have to learn it ourselves, blessed by a knowledgeable resident scientific community.
Most important of all, we continue to work on how to best bring the watershed recovery effort down to the community level, to local governments and citizen groups. So much of what we seek to achieve in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement depends on local rules and regulations and people’s actions and decisions at the scale of small watersheds.
How to help communities achieve local benefits while supporting the overall Bay recovery effort is our greatest challenge.
We have had tremendous help working this out from such groups as the citizen-based Community Watershed Task Force, which recently completed its work. They have made a number of excellent suggestions on how to carry forward this outreach and engagement, which is central to achieving so many of the goals. But it will not happen easily nor overnight.
In the case of most of the most complex and challenging goals of Chesapeake 2000, we are in the process of developing detailed strategies, with interim steps and time frames.
As these are completed and approved by the Bay Program’s Implementation Committee, they are being posted on our web site at www.chesapeakebay.net. In this way, you will be able to track progress and be assured that the program is living up to its commitments. And when we aren’t, let us know it!