Over the last year, Bay Program officials have been immersed in setting quantifiable objectives to include in a new Bay agreement. How many acres of wetlands should be restored? How many acres of forest buffers planted? Even how many blue crabs should be in the Bay.

But scientists advising the state-federal partnership say agreement writers are on the wrong track.

The Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee is urging that the agreement instead emphasize the conditions the Bay Program wants to achieve — such as better water quality and greater habitat benefits from wetlands — and then monitor whether those changes are happening.

Over the decades, the Bay Program has emphasized quantifiable goals, from a 40 percent nitrogen and phosphorus reduction in the 1987 Bay Agreement, to reducing the rate of harmful sprawl by 30 percent and restoring 114,000 acres of underwater grass beds, which were among the many specific goals in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement.

The new draft Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement continues that trend. It sets a series of broad overarching goals, such as restoring fisheries, vital habitats and water quality. For each goal, it establishes a number of measurable outcomes, such as creating or re-establishing 85,000 acres of wetlands, restoring oyster populations in 10 tributaries, planting 900 miles a year of streamside forests, among about two dozen others. After the new agreement is approved, management strategies would be written to guide how those outcomes would be achieved, and progress would be monitored.

In its comments on the draft agreement, STAC contends that the science generally isn’t available to understand the “right” amount of wetlands, oyster reefs or forest buffers that would be needed to meet overarching goals in the agreement.

“It gives a sense that these numbers somehow represent a completed state,” said Chris Pyke, vice president for research with the US Green Building Council and the former STAC chair. “These numbers are ingested in the Bay process and they become an end in themselves. For me, there is a bit of an aversion to another decade of numbers that guide the show.”

He and others say that numbers themselves may not add up to a better Bay or improved watershed. For instance, even as 85,000 acres of wetlands are created, others may be lost or degraded by development. Climate change and sea level rise may destroy others.

So STAC suggests that the goal should be “continued increase in the capacity of wetlands to provide water quality and habitat services throughout the watershed.”

“Counting does not equal accountability in a science-based restoration effort,” said Denice Wardrop, assistant director of Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. “Numeric targets can be used as a strategy to move toward a desired outcome but just tabulating the number is not the endgame. Continually improving water quality and living resources is the goal.”

Proponents of the numeric approach contend that it helps drive actions that are measurable and accountable. But STAC scientists contend that simply adding up numbers falls short of actual accountability.

“Accountability for the Bay is whether it is getting better — drinkable, swimmable and fishable — whether it is superior for people and living resources,” Pyke said. “I don’t think there is any clear indication that achieving these numeric targets would yield that expectation. These different numbers may feel good, but they represent wildly different things from a scientific and technical perspective.”

Indeed, they say that human activities on the landscape and climate change are constantly impacting conditions in the Bay and on its watershed, constantly creating new challenges. Those changes make efforts to improve ecosystems akin to climbing a down escalator — it takes a fair amount of effort simply to keep things from getting worse. Therefore, actions, or numbers that seem “right” today may quickly be obsolete, and more — or different — actions may be required.

“Things that are primary drivers in this system are continuing and we need to be in a position to respond to them,” said Carl Hershner, director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “Our recommendations are trying to move the Bay Program to a stance where that becomes the norm — that we judge our progress on positive change induced in the system, not that the job is going to be complete at some fixed point in the future.”

Toward that end, the committee said stronger monitoring programs need to be key components intertwined with agreement outcomes. Again, the committee expressed concern that monitoring be focused on ecosystem changes — not just numeric goals — because policy makers need to know whether their actions are having the desired impact. If not, they need to understand why, so programs and policies can be adjusted — what scientists call adaptive management.

“If you are going to spend the public’s money to do some implementation, then it is incumbent from an accountability aspect that you monitor whether that implementation is being successful,” said Kirk Havens, director of the Coastal Watersheds Program at VIMS and current STAC chair.

A common concern among policy makers is that money spent on monitoring can detract from implementation efforts. But scientists say its the result — not the numbers — that’s important.

“The issue of separating implementation and monitoring is a fundamental flaw,” Havens said. “It’s akin to your doctor prescribing a certain number of pills for you to take and not checking for a decade whether you recovered or not. The issue is not how many pills you took but whether you have shown improvement.”

The STAC recommendations can be found here.