Marsh restoration

The 2025 goal to create or re-establish 85,000 acres of wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is unlikely to be met. Here, grasses are planted in a marsh at Shorters Wharf along Maryland’s Blackwater River in 2017. 

On a sunny afternoon in June 2014, state and federal officials leading the struggle to restore the Chesapeake Bay gathered in Annapolis and pledged themselves anew to bringing back the ailing estuary’s ecological health.

The new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement signed that day laid out 10 broad goals and 31 outcomes, many to be achieved by 2025 or earlier. The fourth Bay restoration pact inked in a little more than three decades, it contained fewer specifics than the last one signed in 2000, which had failed to fulfill many of its goals.

Leaders of all six Bay states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Commission signed the 21-page document.

While the new agreement focused on core problems with nutrient and sediment pollution, it also promised a variety of other initiatives to restore the vitality of the Bay, its tributaries and the lands that drain into them.

Now, with just four years to go before the deadline, a few of the targets set in 2014 have been reached. The Bay’s blue crab fishery, for example, has been put on more sustainable footing.

Some other commitments also appear on track, such as protecting 2 million more acres of land and adding hundreds of new spots for public boating, fishing and swimming. Oyster reefs have been rebuilt and restocked in three of the 10 Bay tributaries pledged for restoration, and work is under way for the remainder.

Efforts are lagging or in limbo, though, to achieve at least a third of the outcomes promised in the 2014 agreement.

Port Royal fishing pier, VA

Cookie Davis (left) and Cleo Coleman, members of Historic Port Royal, stroll along the town’s recently constructed fishing pier and paddle launch in 2016. 

A recent review by some members of the Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal-state partnership guiding the restoration effort, found that seven of the outcomes are “unlikely to be met without a significant change in course.” Nearly as many others appear uncertain, based on available data and interviews conducted by the Bay Journal. Several efforts are far short of their goals, while others lack sufficient data to tell how much progress, if any, has been made.

Many of those shortcomings will have local impacts, by failing to restore streams and rivers and provide crucial wildlife habitat. Efforts to increase forest buffers along streams — critical for water quality, as well as fish, birds and amphibians — have largely stalled. Similarly, efforts to restore wetlands, already near historically low levels, are dragging. And as the watershed’s human population grows and more land is developed, efforts to maintain what’s left are struggling.

Sean Corson, head of the small group of Bay Program participants that identified seven outcomes as unlikely, acknowledged there could be other efforts in trouble. But for those seven, he said, “the gaps are significant, there’s no question.”

Beyond nutrients

Restoring the Bay’s water quality is the central task of the 2014 agreement. The main targets are water-fouling nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus. The jurisdictions agreed to have all of the pollution control practices and programs in place by 2025 to reduce nutrient loads to the levels set in the Bay’s total maximum daily load, or “pollution diet,” which the EPA developed in 2010.

As of 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, the states and District have only achieved 39% of the nitrogen reductions and 49% of the phosphorus reductions.

James Martin, co-chair of the Bay Program’s water quality goal implementation team, called it “a reasonable conclusion” to deem nutrient reduction outcome unlikely to be met. That’s especially so, he added, because climate change and an increased flow of pollution from behind the Conowingo Dam will only make it “that much harder to achieve.”

Martin said he believes it’s still “theoretically” possible to meet the pollution reduction goals. But most of the actions needed must target nutrient runoff from farmland, he noted, and require the voluntary cooperation of farmers who are pinched between rising costs and slumping prices for the commodities they produce. Adding to the challenge, he said, federal and state programs that offer farmers financial incentives to adopt pollution-reducing conservation practices are “mature bureaucracies” that can’t be changed easily or quickly.

But while most of the restoration effort, and the funds behind it, are directed at nutrient pollution, less attention has been paid to other goals, many of which have community-level impacts.

Wetlands & buffers

In the 2014 agreement, the states and District vowed to plant a combined 900 miles of streamside buffers every year. Since then, they’ve averaged only about one-fourth of that rate. In 2019, the most recent tally showed just 83 miles of streamside forests were planted — less than 10% of the annual target.

They likewise promised to create or restore 85,000 acres of wetlands. As of 2019, they had added 16,000 acres — less than 20% of the goal.

Those numbers are “screaming that we need help,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory body that has signed every Bay restoration agreement.

Tree planting, Choptank River watershed, MD

Tara Hill-Coursey and her son, Jayden, plant trees at a farm near a tributary of Maryland’s Choptank River. Reluctance of farmers to give up cropland to plant trees has hindered the effort to restore streamside forest buffers, which help prevent polluted runoff and increase wildlife habitat. 

The challenges that hamper efforts to reduce nutrient pollution also impede progress with buffers and wetlands: farmers and other landowners are reluctant to give up acreage for restoration projects.

Increasing financial incentives might help, advocates say, but there’s also a lack of technical staff to help track and promote wetland restoration and enhancement.

“There’s not enough money and not enough people,” said Pam Mason, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s wetland workgroup. Mason is director of the Center for Coastal Resource Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Competing priorities are also a problem. Stream restorations are more likely to be funded than wetlands projects, Mason noted, because they’re credited with curbing more nutrients and sediment per dollar spent. Indeed, the regulatory imperative of meeting nutrient reduction goals can draw money away from initiatives that would provide greater benefit for habitat.

“Because there’s been such a priority on water quality, that has sucked a lot of the oxygen [out of] the room,” said Chris Guy, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is acting coordinator for the Bay Program committee overseeing efforts to achieve habitat goals.

Underwater grasses

Also in jeopardy is the commitment to restore the Bay’s underwater grasses, critical habitat for fish and crabs. The agreement set a 2025 target to have 130,000 acres of vegetation growing on the bottom of the Bay and its tributaries, with a longer-term aim to get back to 185,000 acres.

Underwater grasses

The Chesapeake Bay’s underwater grasses, such as eelgrass, are harmed when too much nitrogen clouds the water, blocking the sunlight they need to grow. 

The grasses appeared well on their way to reaching that goal until two years ago, when they shrank from a restoration high of 108,000 acres to 66,000 acres. That nearly 40% drop has been attributed to record rainfall in the watershed that fouled the water with sediment and nutrients.

With more favorable weather and continued efforts to curb pollution, the grasses should recover and begin to spread again, said Brooke Landry, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist who chairs the workgroup dealing with grasses.

But the recent loss was so great, she said, “it’ll be hard to get back in time.”

Tree canopy & brook trout

For some efforts, there’s not enough information to know where they stand.

That’s the case with the agreement’s pledge to increase urban tree canopy throughout the watershed by 2,400 acres to help improve air and water quality and provide more wildlife habitat.

The goal was set based on nothing more than state officials’ estimates of what they thought could get planted by 2025. Only later did participants learn there are roughly 2 million acres of tree canopy covering urban and suburban landscapes — making the new goal seem pretty modest.

There have been a lot of trees planted in urban areas since 2014, but there’s also some evidence that losses to pests, disease, drought and development may have offset and possibly even outpaced the plantings. The Bay Program’s forestry workgroup is awaiting results from high-resolution aerial surveys to see how much, if any, progress has been made.

Street trees

The status of the Chesapeake Bay region’s urban tree canopy goal is unclear.  (Donna Morelli)

Efforts to restore brook trout are similarly in the dark.

States and nongovernmental organizations like Trout Unlimited have been restoring streams across the watershed to make them habitable for the prized game fish. Because “brookies” require clean, cool water to survive, they are considered the embodiment of a healthy stream ecosystem. The agreement pledged to achieve an 8% expansion in their stream habitat by 2025.

“What we do know is we’re not on a trajectory to make that,” said Stephen Faulkner, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist who chairs the Bay Program team on brook trout. Such a goal may be reachable eventually, he said, though continued development and climate change are working against it.

Moving target for fish passage

A few of the agreement’s outcomes have been tweaked, taking into account changed circumstances. In one or two cases, interim deadlines were extended. But one adjusted goal, for fish passage, went from “mission accomplished” to being deep in the hole.

With the help of a change in how progress was being counted, the effort to reopen rivers and streams to migratory fish blew past its original target of adding 1,000 miles in 2016.

Brook trout

The Chesapeake Bay region is not on track to achieve its goal for an 8% expansion in brook trout habitat by 2025. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

But with spawning runs of American shad and river herring still far below historic levels, the Bay Program set a new target, to open 132 more miles to fish passage every two years. They’ve fallen well short of that pace so far, as the number of dam removals has declined.

“We’ve reached the point where all the dams that are easy to remove are already removed by now,” said Julianna Greenberg, staffer for the group working on fish passage.

Diversity

Another outcome that got tweaked, but still faces a steep uphill climb, is the pledge to increase the diversity of the people participating in and leading the Bay Program.

Though more diversity was expressed as a general aim in the 2014 agreement, Bay Program leaders set specific targets in 2019. They vowed to increase the percentage of people of color participating in the restoration effort to 25% by 2025 and to have people of color occupying 15% of the leadership positions by then.

A 2019 survey found slight improvements in diversity since 2016, but less than 15% of those involved with the Bay Program self-identified as people of color, and only about 10% held leadership spots. Another survey is scheduled in 2022.

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman looks askance, though, at the Bay Program’s approach to diversity.

“I don’t know where they get these quotients,” said Tutman, who is the only African American waterkeeper in the nation. “They come up with these targets and just want people to jump on board.” He said the Black and Brown communities he works in are dealing with serious pollution problems that aren’t really addressed by the Bay agreement.

The EPA’s Bisland acknowledged Tutman’s criticism, saying, “We’ve got a lot to learn. We’ve got a lot of listening to do... but we have to start somewhere.”

Chesapeake Bay Program diversity workgroup

Reggie Parrish of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency speaks during a meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup in 2016. 

The Bay Program Management Board held a two-day meeting in May but didn’t come up with a game plan at that time for dealing with any of the lagging efforts.

Some who criticized the 2014 agreement when it was unveiled say they’re not surprised to learn of difficulties fulfilling it.

Gerald Winegrad, a former Maryland state senator, said the 2014 pact represented a retrenchment from the ambitious restoration goals of the preceding agreement.

“We changed the goals because we didn’t meet them,” he said.

Winegrad drew up an alternative 28-point Citizens’ Bay Agreement calling for more mandatory measures to curtail nutrient

pollution from farming and development and to protect forests.

 “It’s time for penalties,” Winegrad said. “If there are not penalties — only money and carrots — we’ll never get anywhere.”

But Bisland defended the overall 2014 agreement and the spirit of voluntary cooperation in which it was created. Without the partnership and the goals set then, “we would be nowhere near where we are now,” she said.

And even if some efforts are too far behind to catch up by 2025, she added, that’s no reason to declare them a lost cause.

“It’s going to take us longer to restore and protect the Bay,” she said. Climate change and other challenges are making it harder to even maintain status quo, she added, “[so] it’s important that we stay on this and push forward.” 

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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