The governors of nearly all the states in the Chesapeake Bay drainage basin have inked a bipartisan pledge with the federal government to keep climate change from unraveling their 40-year effort to restore the estuary’s health.

Some environmental groups, however, are criticizing the agreement, saying it doesn’t press hard enough to ensure action will be taken. The pledge, they say, is short on specific goals for reducing pollution and lacks any mechanism for holding states accountable.

Chesapeake Executive Council meeting 2021

The Chesapeake Executive Council, consisting of state and federal leaders of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, held their 2021 annual meeting Oct. 1 in Virginia Beach. Pictured left to right are Diana Esher, Acting Administrator for Region 3 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam; and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

The policy was announced at the Chesapeake Executive Council’s annual meeting on Oct. 1. Its membership includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and West Virginia; the mayor of Washington, DC; the head of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which consists of legislators from Bay states; and the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

All the states signed on to the plan except for West Virginia. Under the partnership's rules, the state has until Dec. 1 to do so. A spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection didn't respond to multiple requests for comment for this report.

The state-federal collaboration, known as the Chesapeake Bay Program, was established in 1983 in response to a five-year study that painted a devastating picture of the Chesapeake’s declining water quality and loss of aquatic life. Under a 2014 agreement, the program faces a 2025 deadline to put in place a wide range of pollution-reduction strategies across the 64,000-square-mile watershed.

But climate change threatens to undo many of those gains, experts warn. Flooding caused by heavier rains could carry more nutrients and sediment into the Bay. Warmer water temperatures could fuel more growth of the algae responsible for summertime “dead zones,” underwater graveyards triggered by the sudden depletion of oxygen.

The three-page “climate directive” mandates that the Bay Program’s partners weave climate action into their planning, computer-modeling and restoration activities.

“I strongly believe that by working together as a region in a bipartisan way, we can and we will continue to find real, commonsense solutions to address climate change and to protect the Chesapeake Bay,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan at a ceremony hosted at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach.

The only other governor present for the signing in person was Virginia Ralph Northam. He called the step “long overdue.”

“This directive should leave no doubt that this Executive Council acknowledges that climate change presents a severe threat to the investments we have made in restoring our Chesapeake Bay and that urgent action is required,” Northam said. “We will use the best climate science to chart a path forward.”

Last year, the council’s biggest action was to sign a statement vowing to address diversity and equity in the Bay restoration. Northam said that the latest agreement forges ahead on that mission by pushing the partnership to consider the impacts of climate change on people of color and other vulnerable communities.

Kristin Reilly, director of the Annapolis-based Choose Clean Water Coalition, praised the climate agreement for detailing how the complex web of agencies and work groups under the partnership’s umbrella should account for climate change.

“The key thing here is you want things to be integrated into all aspects of the [cleanup],” Reilly said. “That’s really how you’re going to get things done. You want to see things get done rather than just saying a blanket statement like ‘Climate change is bad.’”

But the plan doesn’t say much about what the various parties should do beyond those first initial steps, she said. Under the section devoted to addressing climate threats to urban and natural landscapes, for example, just two bullet points follow: a call to prioritize saving wetlands and other natural features and a push to “build climate science into environmental literacy programs.”

There and elsewhere, the document fails to hold the partners’ “feet to the fire,” Reilly said.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker said the climate agreement amounts to a small step when bold action is needed.

“The climate change directive must do more to meet scientists’ findings,” he said in a statement. “While Virginia has set a pollution-reduction goal that includes mitigating the damage from climate change, Maryland and Pennsylvania have not.”

Baker saved his harshest criticism for the council’s inaction toward Pennsylvania. Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia are the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed last year seeking to force EPA action on getting Pennsylvania and New York to do more to clean up their portions of the Bay watershed.

“If the [Executive] Council and EPA refuse to exert leadership, Bay restoration efforts are doomed to fail,” said Baker, whose nonprofit joined the downstream Bay states in the lawsuit.

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