Long before he led the war against the British, George Washington helped wage a campaign to drain the Great Dismal Swamp on the southern edge of the Bay watershed.

While Washington’s 1763 plan proved to be a failure, many others in the past two centuries were devastatingly effective: Since the 1780s, nearly 2 million acres of marshes, swamps and other wetlands have vanished from the Bay’s drainage basin. Today, only about 1.3 million acres remain.

Now, officials are asking, how many wetlands should the watershed have in the future?

In what could be one of its most far-reaching — and costly — objectives since adopting a 40 percent nutrient reduction goal more than a decade ago, the Bay Program plans to answer that question this fall.

Since 1988, its policies have called for a “net resource gain” in wetlands. Despite that, experts generally agree the watershed has been losing ground.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of acres are lost annually to natural factors, such as sea level rise. Plant-chewing nutria — a non-native, muskrat-like creature brought to the Eastern shore decades ago — destroy hundreds or thousands of acres every year.

In Virginia, a loophole in federal law has led to the draining of thousands of acres of wetlands in the past year [See “Loophole leads to wide scale wetland draining in Virginia”]. Meanwhile, tiny wetland tracts — often invisible to regulatory programs — are whittled away throughout the watershed.

With an eye toward adding teeth to its wetlands objective, the Chesapeake Executive Council — made up of Bay state governors, the District of Columbia mayor, the EPA administrator and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents legislatures — in 1997 ordered that a quantifiable wetland goal for gains in “acreage and function” be established at its meeting this fall.

Now, officials are trying to figure out what that goal should be. It’s no easy job.

“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that we are losing wetlands, and that there is a commitment to stop that loss and to actually restore wetlands,” said Carl Hershner, a wetlands scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and chairman of the Bay Program’s Wetlands Workgroup. “The question is, how many do we want to restore? That’s where the science comes up short in providing a concrete answer.”

While people generally agree more is better, no one can say how much healthier the Bay would be if, say, there were 100,000, 200,000 or 300,000 more acres of wetlands.“Nobody can turn around and say that is going to mean that we will have 7 tons more crabs in the Bay than we have right now,” Hershner said. “Those sorts of correlations just don’t exist.”

Because there is no “right” number, the workgroup could not recommend a goal. That number, Hershner said, isn’t a matter of science but rather a matter of how much commitment political leaders want to make toward wetland restoration.

"Setting a target is basically a function of time and resources to achieve it,” agreed Mike Hirshfield, vice president for Resource Protection with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Ultimately, someone has to say how much we are willing to do. We think that’s the role of the top leadership of the Bay Program.”

CBF has been pushing for an aggressive goal to drive restoration efforts for the next decade. It calls for adding 200,000 acres of wetlands by 2010. That figure would bring back about 10 percent of what was lost since George Washington’s day.

That also ties to a recommendation by the National Research Council, a federal scientific advisory panel, which called for a national 10 million acre wetland increase by 2010. If that goal were divided regionally, the watershed’s share would be about 200,000 acres.

Still, such an objective isn’t based on any predictable improvement in the Bay or its tributaries. It relies only on the general assumption that because wetlands provide so many services — water filtering, wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge and so on — things will generally get better.

Against that background, the Bay Program has only recently begun internal debates about what the “right” number should be.

So far, they are discussing a three-pronged approach:

  • Achieve “no net loss” of wetlands in regulatory programs.
  • Set a “net gain” goal for wetlands to be restored outside the regulatory program.
  • Set a wetland preservation goal to eventually preserve all remaining wetlands in the watershed through easements, land trust purchases and other legal and permanent means. That could include interim goals for the states to preserve certain amounts by specific dates.

“You basically focus your attention on protecting what you’ve got, make sure you’re making up for any losses under the regulatory programs, and then get busy restoring,” said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office.

The Bay Program is currently considering a restoration goal of about 83,000 acres, perhaps by 2015. “That’s ambitious,” Matuszeski said, “but given what people feel about wetlands and their importance, it’s worth trying for.” Such a goal would require stepped-up efforts. It would mean more than 5,000 acres of wetland creation a year; only about 1,000 –2,000 are created annually within the watershed right now.

“Our current efforts may get us there, but only very, very slowly,” Hershner said. “It is going to take some new resources.”

Wetland restoration can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars per acre. A draft report by the Wetlands Workgroup said the tab for wetland restoration could end up costing millions, or tens of millions, of dollars annually.

Generally, agricultural lands that have been drained through ditching are the cheapest and easiest to restore — once the ditches are blocked, the area will gradually revert to its natural state. But those “easy” sites are rapidly being gobbled up by restoration programs, and finding adequate sites in the future will likely become more difficult, and costly, Hershner cautioned.

“The fact of the matter is that people who are out there on the ground doing restoration activities these days are increasingly finding that the best areas have already been taken,” he said.

In Virginia, planners trying to offset more than 400 acres of wetlands that would be lost to a proposed reservoir in King William County failed to find enough restoration sites to make up for the loss within the Pamunkey River watershed. They’re now looking at sites in other river basins, much to the dismay of environmentalists who believe replacement should take place near the site of the damage.

Elsewhere, said Mike Clower, director of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department, there are increasing reports of people with land suitable for wetland restoration refusing to sell, even for large sums of money. “We may be able to determine all of the suitable sites, but that doesn’t mean that the farmer is willing to put it into an easement or sell it,” he said.

Clower is working on an effort to develop a “net gain” wetland strategy which has been promised for the state by Gov. Jim Gilmore. Such a strategy, expected later this year, would likely be folded into the Bay Program strategy.

But Clower said any goal has to be grounded in reality. “I’d like to pick a goal and say it’s an achievable goal, and let’s achieve it, period, and not work in factors for excuses,” he said.

Clower argues against setting an overall number. Rather, he favors a “graduated approach” that starts with a modest objective, but then requires that it be increased — perhaps by 10–25 percent until they reach a maximum, reasonable, sustained rate — each year.

Such an approach, he said, would allow state agencies to build internal budget and technical mechanisms that perpetuate the effort. As agencies gain more experience in restoration and learn new techniques, they could be expected to gradually speed up their efforts.

Further, Clower argues against a deadline, favoring a perpetual program. “I don’t want an end date,” he said. “I think it’s time that we recognize wetlands for the important resource that they are.”

In Maryland, Gov. Parris Glendening two years ago set a state goal of restoring 60,000 acres of wetlands, roughly the amount officials believe were lost since World War II. State officials are still working out the details of how that goal would be accomplished and are dealing with the same issues that loom for a Baywide policy.

The goal so far does not have a deadline, and there are concerns about just how much land is available for wetland restoration.

Partly because of that, state officials are looking at including some activities that improve — but don’t necessarily create — wetlands as counting toward the goal. For example, they may count actions such as replacing Phragmites, an invasive plant that can take over wetlands and reduce their habitat value, with more desirable plants.

Whether the Baywide goals will ultimately add up to a “net gain” is a complex matter. To achieve a “net gain,” more wetlands have to be built than are lost. Right now, no one knows how many wetlands are being lost in the watershed. But between the Virginia losses, nutria and sea level rise and other factors, the watershed currently appears to be losing thousands of acres annually.

The Bay Program is planning to develop a tracking system that uses satellite images and other information to measure wetland gains and losses throughout the watershed every five years. That information is still years away, though.

Eventually, though, wetland tracking will likely make any goal seem less bold in the future as some gains are inevitably offset by continued losses. Also, satellite-based wetland tracking programs won’t count an “enhanced” wetland as a gain. From the sky, a wetland dominated by Phragmites looks pretty much the same as one that isn’t. Both, after all, are still wetlands.

“None of that should be taken as a criticism of the activities that are under way,” Hershner said. “It’s just a matter that if we are going to be honest in accounting what we’re all accomplishing, we’ve got to get a handle on that.”

In part, Hershner said, that makes the third part of the potential Bay Program goal — preserving what’s left — most intriguing. Preventing wetland loss is probably more economical than replacing it. Also, preserving wetlands and their surrounding landscape would also help protect wetland “functions.”

Wetlands are integrated parts of the landscape, and what they do depends on adjacent land use. Wetlands that serve as prime bird habitats do little good if surrounded by a subdivision filled with wandering cats, for instance.

"Wetlands are one of those resources that you can’t preserve in the abstract,” Hershner said. “If you have a forested wetland in the middle of a forest, it has certain functional values that are irrevocably changed if you convert the surrounding forest to development, even if you leave the wetland sitting there all by itself.”

How all this will play out in the coming months is unclear. Right now, no goals and no dates are set in stone, cautioned Carolyn Watson, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who chairs the Bay Program’s Living Resources Subcommittee.

“Of all the issues that we’ve dealt with in the Bay Program, this has the broadest range of issues and options that we’ve ever been confronted with in Bay Program policy setting,” Watson said. But, she added, “I believe that we really do need to have, in the spirit of the Bay Program, a very far-reaching goal that is going to protect and restore wetlands in the watershed.”

Will the Bay states ultimately prove more successful in preserving wetlands than George Washington was in destroying them? The answer to that question may, at least in part, help determine how far they can go in restoring a Bay that Washington would have recognized.