It may be the nation's largest estuary, but the Chesapeake Bay can be surprisingly hard to find. With just 2 percent of its shoreline in public ownership, it's not uncommon to hear newcomers to the region recounting how they spent hours trying to find a place where they could dangle their feet in the Bay.
"There are places where you drive and drive and can't figure out how to get to the water," said John Maounis, superintendent of the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Office.
Water-seeking travelers may get some help in the coming decade, as a new report has identified 320 potential new access sites along the Bay and its largest tributaries.
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Public Access Plan, produced by the Park Service in collaboration with states in the watershed, confirms that water access is often in short supply.
While improving public access has been a Bay Program priority for more than two decades, the new plan was the first to reach beyond the Bay and go into the watershed to identify existing and potential access sites.
It identified 1,150 existing sites along the Bay or portions of its tributaries that are generally considered to be large enough to accommodate a kayak or canoe launch. That works out to an access site every 15 miles on average, but masks the reality that in many areas, access sites are few and far between.
A 60-mile stretch of the lower James River has no regularly open access site, the report said, and areas of the Susquehanna, Rappahannock, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers and portions of the Bay also have stretches that are nearly as long, which are off-limits to the public.
"There are many stretches of these rivers and Bay shore where you just can't get to the water," Maounis said.
Those long stretches make it difficult for people to plan trips along designated water trails, and therefore can reduce the ecotourism potential for the local economy, the report said. It can also lead to trespassing when people have no public options to get on and off the water.
While supply is short, demand for access is high, the report concluded. In developing the plan, the Park Service created a website that allowed people to identify areas that needed access, or potential access sites. The website received more than 10,000 visitors in a single month, which officials said illustrates the pent-up demand for more access.
"What people identified, aside from individual places, was just a great desire to have more places that they could get to the water," Maounis said.
Public input, along with that from state and Park Service planners, produced the list of 320 potential new sites, which includes places where people could launch boats, fish, swim or view the water from its shoreline.
In addition to the long stretches with no place to get to the water, the plan identified other access gaps. Some of the highest demand for public access came from urban areas. Access sites for launching boats and canoes and kayaks was also in high demand. And paddlers traveling the growing number of water trails in the region cited the lack of primitive campgrounds as a problem because it makes overnight trips difficult to plan.
Opportunities to get in the water to wade or swim remain in short supply — only 7 percent of the potential new sites would support swimming. Boat ramps were the more frequently suggested kind of access sites, accounting for 47 percent of the possible locations.
But some think the large number of boat ramps in the plan — which are already the most common access type — and few swimming sites acts to limit meaningful water access for many.
"There are certainly more boat ramps out there than there were 30 years ago, and that's good if you own a boat. But if you don't own a boat, the opportunities to connect to the Bay's waters are still few and far between," said Charlie Stek, a longtime advocate for improving public access who, as an aide to the now-retired Sen. Paul Sarbanes, helped to create the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
The plan provides too few opportunities for people — and children in particular — to get into the water to wade or swim, he said, and it doesn't provide enough support for paddlers who want to make multi-day trips along the water trails. "These are the kinds of access that build strong, personal connections to the Bay's waters and inspires people to care for those waterways," Stek said.
Similarly, he questioned whether sites that allow only viewing the water from the shoreline, but do not allow opportunities to get into the water, should be counted as access. "Like most people, I certainly enjoy looking at the Bay and its waterways, " Stek said. "But if you can't fish, play, paddle or even stick your toes in the water, it is not access."
Officials agree that some access types need more attention, including swimming sites. They also indicated that some findings — such as the level of demand for urban area access as well as demand for camping along trails — came as a surprise. Those issues have been identified as areas for follow-up studies.
But prioritizing the types of access sites that are ultimately created is often difficult, said John Davy, a Park Service planner who worked on the study. Sites often go where they are most doable, or where funding is available, rather than where people may think they are most needed, or provide the most desired access types. "Public access is often very opportunistic," he said.
But, he said, the establishment of new national trails, including the John Smith trail and the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, have resulted in projects that improve access along the trails, including new types of access such as more places to launch and land kayaks and canoes.
Davy defended the inclusion of sites that only offer a view of water from the shoreline as access. "For people who don't have boats or kayaks or canoes, that can become an important part of the river access," he said. "In the urban areas, that may be the only access some folks have."
The plan was produced in response to the 2010 federal Chesapeake Bay strategy developed in response to President Obama's Chesapeake Executive Order. That strategy called for adding 300 new public access sites by 2025.
Meeting the 300-site goal would require bringing new access sites online at the rate of about 20 a year. Of the potential sites that were identified, more than half are publicly owned, but fewer than 5 percent are considered "construction ready." The rest need permits, design work or further evaluation.
"I am very optimistic that this is doable," Maounis said. "It is not going to be easy. It is going to cost money and it is going to take a lot of energy."
Funding is the most cited obstacle to increasing access, but there are other problems, too. Railroad tracks along many tributaries create a barrier to reaching the water, and railroad companies are reluctant to allow crossings because of liability concerns.
Creating access sites can be difficult — and costly. The nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy has been working to raise money, often from private sources, to improve access to water trails along the Bay and its tributaries.
"Every single one has its challenges, whether it is geography, funding or permitting," said Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which works to promote access and protect land around the Bay and its tributaries. "They are usually on the waterfront, so they are usually fairly expensive, especially if you are trying to acquire new land."
To leverage more public and private support for access sites, the conservancy, other nonprofits, recreational groups, small businesses and others have backed a "Freedom to Float" campaign.
The campaign seeks to build public support to help make the potential access sites outlined in the plan become a reality. "Connecting communities with nature and expanding access will help protect our lands and waters for healthy outdoor recreation including boating, fishing, hiking, camping and birding," said Edward Stierli, of the National Parks and Conservation Association which launched the initiative.
That, advocates say, is the ultimate goal of getting people outside and on the water: to build their appreciation for those resources so they will want to help protect them in the future.
"Public access adds a dimension to the effort to protect and restore the Bay and its rivers that is also about the quality of life," Maounis said. "Certainly, it is about the quality of the water, but it is about the quality of life as well."
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Public Access Plan is available on the federal Executive Order website: executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/.
New bill would improve access at bridge sites, where feasible, in MD
Maryland paddlers who have a hard time finding places to get in and out of the water may eventually have to go no farther than the nearest bridge to get river access.
Kayakers and canoeists already use bridges as informal locations to launch or land their boats, but those crossings often lack adequate shoulders and pull-off areas, or have obstructions that prevent people from walking down to the water.
Legislation introduced by Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, could over time sharply increase the number of places where paddlers and anglers could safely get to waterways by requiring that state and local transportation planners incorporate water access when feasible during bridge construction projects.
The bill would require that Maryland's existing 5,200 bridges be inventoried to determine whether access is possible. Many bridges are located in places where access isn't feasible, such as interstate highways or over streams too small to canoe.
For bridges where access is feasible and are in the construction, design or planning stage, the bill calls for access to be incorporated as long as it can be done safely.
The bill would also require that waterway access for anglers, canoeists and kayakers be considered at bridges during the development of municipal transportation plans.
"We are not asking the state or the county to go back and retrofit every bridge so there is improved access," said Charlie Stek, chairman of the Chesapeake Conservancy and a longtime advocate for improved public access and former aide to retired U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Stek has worked on the legislation for the last two years.
"We are saying that whenever they repair, redeck or replace a bridge that they need to include some provision of access in their planning process."
Improved access at bridges could happen at little additional cost, he said. In fact, some of the things sought by boaters, such as widened shoulders and parking, are often built during bridge construction and then removed. And because the land is already publicly owned, there is no land acquisition cost.
Access sites at bridge are not the same as the formal access sites that would be counted toward Chesapeake Bay public access goals, Stek said. Rather, they are intended to allow informal access where it is feasible, and to make it safer where it is already taking place.
"We are trying to make Maryland an example of how we can do this effectively and cheaply, then take that example to other states in the watershed and to the federal government," Stek said.
Other states, such as California, already require consideration of recreational public access before the construction of any bridge. Efforts to improve access at bridge sites are also taking place in North Carolina and Tennessee.
The legislation, HB 797, is supported by a coalition of recreational groups.