Three decades after the region's leaders first committed to work together to restore the nation's largest estuary, state and federal officials this fall hope to sign a new Chesapeake Bay agreement to help guide future activity.
The agreement is intended to bring new goals, new state participants and — officials hope — renewed enthusiasm for the Bay restoration effort.
The document, which officials hope will be ready to sign in October, would be the fourth such agreement since the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program partnership was launched in 1983, and the first agreement in 13 years.
Past Bay agreements have set the broad framework for cooperation among states and federal agencies by establishing goals for reducing pollution, restoring habitats, improving fishery management and other shared objectives. Participation was voluntary.
Yet, despite the optimism for the new agreement, it will likely be overshadowed by a legacy from past ones: They often did not achieve their objectives.
The repeated failures to achieve nutrient reduction goals set forth in agreements signed in 1987 and 2000 led to the establishment of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet, in 2010. Unlike voluntary Bay agreements, the TMDL is enforceable, and the EPA can penalize states that fail to meet nutrient and sediment reduction goals.
As a result, many state officials have made clear in recent meetings that most of their focus, and spending, will remain on meeting the regulatory requirements of the TMDL.
Nonetheless, many state and federal officials — as well as outside observers— say there is value in having a new agreement, because the TMDL deals only with water quality, not the full range of issues affecting the Chesapeake such as restoring and protecting habitats like oyster reefs, wetlands and streams.
"It is about ecosystem restoration, so it is not just about water quality," said Nick DiPasquale, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office. "Water quality is important, but it is also fisheries, it is habitat, it is land conservation, it is stewardship, it is all of those other things."
Al Todd, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, said an agreement can help restore relationships that were strained by the TMDL's regulatory approach to what had historically been a voluntary partnership. "It is important to have something that links these parties across boundaries, that has a positive set of relationships associated with it," he said. "I think there is a lot of opportunity to develop those relationships again, even though we live in slightly different political times."
A major objective of any new agreement would be to clarify overall Bay objectives. Right now, Bay activities are driven by the 13-year-old Chesapeake 2000 agreement, a federal Chesapeake Bay strategy written in 2010, and the TMDL.
Many Chesapeake 2000 agreement commitments expired in 2010, and the federal strategy is not binding on the states. DiPasquale said the agreement is intended in part to "harmonize" objectives so federal agencies and states are working toward common goals. "It will improve coordination," he said.
In addition, he said, the new agreement is intended to be simpler, and provide more accountability.
Unlike the sprawling Chesapeake 2000 agreement, which contained more than 100 commitments, the new agreement would likely have six to eight broad goals aimed at such things as improved water quality, sustainable fisheries and habitat restoration. Each goal would have two or three measurable outcomes. For instance, the habitat goal might have a measurable outcome for the amount of streamside forest buffers to be planted each year, or for the number of miles of rivers to be reopened to fish migration through the construction of fish passages or dam removals.
While the draft agreement remains a work in progress, the goals and outcomes under discussion are largely built upon those set forth in the 2010 federal strategy — which in turn was built largely upon the Chesapeake 2000 agreement — although the specifics are likely to be updated.
For instance, the federal strategy calls for restoring oyster populations in 20 tributaries by 2025. That was widely criticized not only because of its high price tag, but also because there's too little oyster shell available to build that many projects.
At the same time, other goals could get more aggressive. The federal strategy called for restoring 30,000 acres of wetlands by 2025. State cleanup strategies written since then call for creating several times that amount of wetlands to help reduce nutrient pollution.
But some say simply updating past objectives falls short of the bold initiatives set forth in past agreements.
"There is not going to be anything inspiring there if all we are trying to do is get words on paper that represent what we are already doing," Todd said. "There should be some inspiration here."
While past agreements may have fallen short of some objectives, he said, the presence of aggressive goals still led to new efforts — such as widespread initiatives to plant streamside buffers — which helped accelerate on-the-ground activity.
In another new feature, the agreement would also call for the Bay Program to develop management strategies to be written for each goal outcome. As envisioned, those strategies would outline the specific actions to be taken to achieve the outcome, who would take the actions, and the time frame in which they would be completed.
The management strategies would also incorporate a new adaptive management decision framework that would allow specific outcomes to be more easily updated and modified than was the case with commitments in past agreements. "That makes it a more flexible document that is responsive to changing conditions." DiPasquale said.
One controversial part of the management strategies is that states would not be required to participate in them. That means jurisdictions, while signing the agreement, may not necessarily commit to taking actions to implement parts of it.
DiPasquale said that merely recognizes the reality that states already prioritize their resources toward objectives they consider most important. "These are voluntary agreements," he said.
But, he added, by providing more specifics about who is committing to do what — and by when — the management plans will provide more transparency and accountability than earlier agreements. "We would hope that if a jurisdiction signs up, it is going to make its best efforts, that they are supportive and provide the resources," he said. "And if they don't, that is going to be obvious to the public and to others, and they can use other avenues to try to compel them to sign on because they think it is important."
Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she had some concerns about whether some states may not sign up to work toward certain outcomes. But, she said, the bottom line is the agreement needs an accountability mechanism that was not present in past agreements.
"What we are looking for is accountability," she said. "Who is going to do what, by when, and what is the best way to get that."
In another significant change, it would be the first truly watershedwide agreement.
The original one-page agreement creating the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership in 1983 was signed by the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the administrator of the EPA; and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislators of the three states.
It is anticipated that the new agreement will include governors from the headwater states of New York, West Virginia and Delaware. While those states are obligated to work toward nutrient reduction goals under separate agreements signed with the EPA in 2002, they have never been formal signatories to broader Bay agreements.
The new agreement would allow them to participate in a regional program that could provide more tangible local benefits, such as more resources to help restore brook trout streams.
McGee said that incorporating additional partners could result in more political support for the Bay effort, regionally and at the federal level. "We definitely think that would be important politically," she said.
A draft of the new Chesapeake Bay is expected to be available for public review in midsummer. Check the Bay Program's website www.chesapeakebay.net for details.