Is it time to watch Chesapeake Bay for solutions?

After years of struggle and failure to reverse the decline of Chesapeake Bay’s rich ecosystem, the Obama administration this morning announced a new federal strategy for restoring the bay to health.

I believe it will be important for us in the Puget Sound region to pay attention to this strategy, as we also observe our own Puget Sound Partnership struggling to accomplish similar goals in our region.

The new “Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” appears to focus the regulatory weight of the federal government onto a restoration problem that a multitude of states has been unable to accomplish together. A news release from the Environmental Protection Agency puts it this way:

“The strategy includes using rigorous regulations to restore clean water, implementing new conservation practices on 4 million acres of farms, conserving 2 million acres of undeveloped land and rebuilding oysters in 20 tributaries of the bay.

“To increase accountability, federal agencies will establish milestones every two years for actions to make progress toward measurable environmental goals. These will support and complement the states’ two-year milestones.”

Last year, out of frustration, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act that would improve the bay’s water quality and help the ecosystem. Yesterday, the CBF dropped the lawsuit on a promise that the EPA will ensure that improvements are made on a strict schedule.

In many ways, the strategy appears to mirror philosophies found in the legislation creating the Puget Sound Partnership — including science-based priorities, measured progress and accountability.

One idea from the Chesapeake strategy: “Greater transparency and integration of federal, state and local actions will be greatly enhanced through ChesapeakeStat, a web-based tool designed to provide performance data and information in a format that allows a range of audiences to understand the work being done in the Chesapeake watershed.”

The new federal strategy recognizes the need to continue existing efforts and to focus on other short-term actions by local governments and nonprofit organizations. It also includes a focus on jobs, including agriculture, fishing and conservation. And, as with the Puget Sound Partnership, a strong effort will be made to focus dollars and resources where it will do the most good.

Here are some comments from federal officials taken from the news release:

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who chairs the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake: “This strategy outlines the broadest partnerships, the strongest protections and the most accountability we’ve seen in decades. It’s a new era for our work on the Chesapeake Bay.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: “A thriving, sustainable agricultural sector is critical to restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. We will help the bay watershed’s farmers and forest owners put new conservation practices on 4 million acres of agricultural lands so that agriculture can build on the improvements in nutrient and sediment reductions that we have seen over the last 25 years.”

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar: “My department, which has 13 refuges and 51 units of the National Park System throughout the watershed, will play a key role in the plan, working hand-in-hand with other federal agencies, states, local communities and other stakeholders to restore this national treasure cherished by so many.”

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco: “It is critical that we apply our best science toward native oyster restoration and habitat protection, as well as toward development of sustainable aquaculture. Ecosystem-based approaches to management will enable progress toward a healthy, sustainable Chesapeake ecosystem that will include oysters for generations to come.”

I think it may be worthwhile to take a look at some of the goals for the Chesapeake along with current conditions listed in the strategy:

RESTORE CLEAN WATER

Water Quality: Meet water quality standards for dissolved oxygen, clarity/underwater grasses and chlorophyll-a in the Bay and tidal tributaries by implementing 100 percent of pollution reduction actions for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment no later than 2025, with 60 percent of segments attaining water quality standards by 2025. (Current condition: 89 of the 92 segments of the Bay and its tidal waters are impaired.)

Stream Restoration: Improve the health of streams so that 70 percent of sampled streams throughout the Chesapeake watershed in a condition of fair, good or excellent as measured by the Index of Biotic Integrity by 2025. (Current condition: 45 percent of sampled streams rated fair, good or excellent.)

Agriculture Conservation: Work with producers to apply new conservation practices on 4 million acres of working agricultural lands in high priority watersheds by 2025 to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. (Current condition: Of the approximately 8 million acres of agricultural working lands in high-priority watersheds, approximately 4 million acres are identified as having soils with the highest potential for leaching and runoff, which may affect water quality. The 4-million-acre target is to apply or expand conservation treatment on virtually all of the most vulnerable agricultural lands.)

RECOVER HABITAT

Wetland Restoration: Restore 30,000 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands and enhance the function of 150,000 additional acres of degraded wetlands by 2025. (Current condition: 1 million acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands estimated to be available in the Chesapeake watershed for restoration or enhancement. Between 1998 and 2008, 18,217 acres of wetlands were restored and 97,738 acres were enhanced.)

Forest Buffers: Restore riparian forest buffers to 63 percent, or 181,440 miles, of the total riparian miles (streambank and shoreline miles) in the Bay watershed by 2025. (Current condition:58 percent of the 288,000 total riparian miles in the Bay watershed has forest buffers in place.)

Fish Passage: Restore historical fish migratory routes by opening an additional 1,000 stream miles by 2025, with restoration success indicated by the presence of river herring, American shad and/or American eel. (Current condition: Approximately 1,924 stream miles in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been opened and are accessible for fish migration. Projects are currently being ranked and prioritized through a collaborative federal and state process designed to strategically target priority projects.)

SUSTAIN FISH AND WILDLIFE

Oysters: Restore native oyster habitats and populations in 20 out of 35 to 40 candidate tributaries by 2025. (Current condition: 0 tributaries with fully restored oyster populations; several tributaries with successful living oyster reef habitat.)

Blue Crabs: Maintain sustainable blue crab interim rebuilding target of 200 million adults (1+ years old) in 2011 and develop a new population target for 2012 through 2025. (Current condition: 2007-2008: 131 million; 2008-2009: 223 million; 2009-2010: 315 million.)

Brook Trout:
Restore naturally reproducing brook trout populations in headwater streams by improving 58 sub-watersheds from “reduced” classification (10-50 percent of habitat loss) to “healthy” (less than 10 percent of habitat loss) by 2025. (Current condition: 388 of 1,294 sub-watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay currently classified as “reduced”
for brook trout.)

Black Duck: Restore a three-year average wintering black duck population in the Chesapeake Bay watershed of 100,000 birds by 2025. (Current condition: Recent mid-winter aerial surveys estimate the 2007-2009 rolling three-year average at 37,158 black ducks in the Chesapeake Bay.)

CONSERVE LAND AND INCREASE PUBLIC ACCESS

Land Conservation:
Protect an additional 2 million additional acres of lands throughout the watershed currently identified as high conservation priorities at the federal, state or local level by 2025 including 695,000 acres of forest land of highest value for maintaining water quality.

Public Access:
Increase public access to the Bay and its tributaries by adding 300 new public access sites (40 percent increase) by 2025. (Current condition: 761 public access sites providing access to Bay and its tributaries exist in DC, MD, PA, VA. Data on existing access sites in NY, DE and WV will be collected in the future.)

10 thoughts on “Is it time to watch Chesapeake Bay for solutions?

  1. That sounds like good news. One thing I missed was an explanation of why a healthy Chesapeake Bay is important, and how important is it? The same applies to most coverage of the Puget Sound efforts.

    I ask because I have a hard time finding data to make a good case for understanding and preserving the health of our oceans in general, or Puget Sound in particular. Sure, many people already believe that our wellbeing is tied to the health of our oceans, but far more probably never even thought about it.

    This isn’t just an academic exercise. A lot of money and effort is allocated based on perceived importance. In a 2008 TED talk, I heard Bob Ballard say that one year of NASA’s budget for space exploration would cover NOAA’s ocean exploration budget for … wait for it … not 10 years, not 100 years, but 1,600 years!

    Obviously, when it comes to allocating funding and other resources, relevance matters. If we can’t explain clearly and convincingly why healthy waters are important, how can we expect them to be kept healthy?

  2. Frontline did a great piece on the multitude of poultry farms that drain straight into the bay.
    Where is the mandate that chicken poop be treated?

  3. John,

    You make a good point. Maybe if people understood the economic values of Puget Sound, they would be more willing to “invest” in restoration and protection.

    Part of the problem, I think, is the difficulty in quantifying ecosystem and human values or, in the alternative, ignoring them altogether.

    How do you put a number on illnesses avoided by having clean water, fish and shellfish? What’s the value of living in an area with good habitat? Do plants and animals — killer whales, for example — have an intrinsic value? A few studies have taken a stab at quantifying this “natural capital,” but they are open to criticism. See “A New View of the Puget Sound Economy” (PDF 9.1 mb).

    Other studies have focused on specific economic sectors, such as “Economic Analysis of the Non-Treaty Commercial and Recreational Fisheries in Washington State” (PDF 9.1 mb). Such studies certainly can be used to argue for natural resource protections.

    As a result of your comment, I’m wondering if it might be a good idea to create a big list of the values of a healthy ecosystem, whether or not they can be quantified at any given time.

    North,

    I believe pollution from chicken farms would come under the goal for water quality: “Meet water quality standards for dissolved oxygen, clarity/underwater grasses and chlorophyll-a in the Bay and tidal tributaries by implementing 100 percent of pollution reduction actions for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment no later than 2025, with 60 percent of segments attaining water quality standards by 2025. (Current condition: 89 of the 92 segments of the Bay and its tidal waters are impaired.)” (This is from the Water Ways entry above. There is more in the document itself.)

  4. “And, as with the Puget Sound Partnership, a strong effort will be made to focus dollars and resources where it will do the most good.”

    How did you arrive at your conclusion that the PSP has made a strong effort to focus dollars and resources where it will do the most good?

  5. BlueLight: a related question: “how does anyone know where the $$ will do the most good?” I suspect there are as many answers to that as there are people expressing opinions. But the PSP did set out at the very beginning to distinguish themselves from the Chesapeake project because they (and the federal GAO) saw in the Chesapeake project a dramatic lack of accountability, a lack of results, and a lack of understanding about what would and wouldn’t produce results.
    (I don’t have citations for this, but that was a topic Ruckelshaus harped on a lot in the early days of the PSP).

    PSP’s Action Agenda (Dec. 2008) was written specifically to identify what needed to be done and how to best prioritize the list. I’m no expert, but it looked to me like a good effort involving numerous independent panels and public input.f

  6. Chris, I agree it’s difficult to assign quantitative values to ecosystem services and other aspects of our environment. As far as I can tell, a lot of people still think that it will be practical, if not advantageous, to live like the Jetsons in a completely artificial world, with resources magically appearing and waste magically disappearing, and the “magic” supplied by future technologies not yet apparent.

    That is indeed the sort of imagery that is conjured up by landing on the moon and talking of colonizing Mars.

    Be that as it may, we must still be able to budget resources, energy, waste, and productivity in order to make any future viable. And as difficult as it is to quantify the ecosystem services on earth, on Mars, or in the ocean, we need to learn how to do it! We did, after all, learn how to do many other difficult things like sending probes to Saturn, setting our rivers on fire, and speaking English without a Babel fish.

    I hope someone is already compiling a list of the benefits of a healthy ecosystem, but if they are I haven’t heard about it. It sounds like a great idea. Of course it would be controversial, but what isn’t? Presumably involving a broad enough spectrum of people in the project would increase the worth of the results.

    So what do we do to start? Who would like to chime in about existing similar efforts?

  7. Well, this reporter made the statement, John. The question remains: Chris, how did you arrive at your conclusion that the PSP has made a strong effort to focus dollars and resources where it will do the most good?

  8. Here is a link to the State Auditor’s report on the Puget Sound Partnership. Amongst other things, it says the agency “circumvented state contracting laws, exceeded its purchasing authority and made unallowable purchases with public funds”. It also said, “Public funds set aside for the restoration of Puget Sound were improperly spent. If the Partnership continues to make accountability over public resources a low priority, additional money will be at risk.”

    http://www.sao.wa.gov/auditreports/auditreportfiles/ar1003598.pdf

    To me, the PSP looks like a jobs program for the environmental lobby of our state’s Democrat party.

    But Chris Dunagan, environmental rporter for the Kitsap Sun newspaper, has concluded otherwise. And, Chris, I would like to know how you have arrived at that.

  9. BlueLight,

    At first, I thought you were asking a rhetorical question, as in: How does anyone know whether the PSP is focusing its attention in the right place?

    I certainly have not drawn any conclusions about this; I’m only reporting the agency’s goals. But I think you know that.

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