Recognizing that the health of the Bay is determined by the health of the 110,000 miles of rivers and streams that flow into it, the Executive Council approved a new directive intended to promote grassroots watershed protection efforts.
Under a new "Community Watershed Initiative," the Council directed the Bay Program to develop a strategy that helps incorporate local restoration activities into overall Chesapeake restoration goals.
"We believe that working community by community, watershed by watershed, restoring habitat, working to control runoff and other forms of pollution, these local efforts can make a huge difference in the quality of water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay," EPA Admin-istrator Carol Browner said at the meeting. "This Executive council can set high standards and set tough goals - and we should, that is part of our responsibility - but when all is said and done, our successes will hinge on people," she said.
Congress recently gave such grassroots efforts a boost with a $750,000 appropriation that will provide small "seed grants" and technical assistance to local governments, nonprofit organizations and citizen groups who want to protect local watersheds within the Chesapeake basin.
"These small grants will help local governments and communities undertake a variety of restoration actions, from tree plantings to river cleanups, that address the Bay's water quality and living resource needs," said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, who sponsored the program, which was included in the EPA's appropriation for 1998 and signed by the president.
The Bay Program is expected to develop a process to seek grant requests and distribute the money by early next year.
It is unclear, though, whether such money will be available to support community-based watershed efforts in future years, either through direct appropriations from Congress or through the Bay Program.
Those issues will be dealt with as the Bay Program develops its "Community Watershed Strategy" in coming months.
But the directive signed by the Executive Council acknowledges that supporting local efforts can play a big role in achieving other Bay Program goals, such as nutrient and toxics reduction, restoring forested streamside buffers, enhancing and restoring wetlands, and dealing with land use and growth issues.
Virginia Del. W. Tayloe Murphy, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission which proposed the initiative, said giving citizens the educational, financial and technical assistance needed to make wise decisions is critical for the Bay Program to meet such long-range goals.
"The cumulative benefits derived from many community-based watershed projects will mean continued progress toward a healthier Bay," Murphy said.
"Its decline has occurred over a long period of time, and is the result of the cumulative impact of many activities that are of little apparent consequence in themselves - a subdivision here, a road there, a new field cleared from woodland, but collectively they have consequences that radiate like ripples on a still pond.
"A reversal of that decline and the restoration of water quality to the level we seek will result from the cumulative effect of many small undertakings," Murphy said.
The strategy to be completed in coming months is to explain how the Bay Program can improve its outreach to local groups in a way that will make that vision happen.