After 40 years, Chesapeake Bay Program yields mixed results

After 40 years, Chesapeake Bay Program yields mixed results

The first Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed on Dec. 9, 1983 by, from left, Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. William Scranton III, as well as Mayor Marion Barry for the District of Columbia and Administrator William Ruckelshaus of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (not pictured). Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program)

Two of the most experienced journalists covering the Chesapeake Bay for decades assess the Chesapeake Bay Program on its 40th anniversary.

Bay Journal

On a chilly, overcast day in December 1983, more than 700 people who were worried about the declining health of the Chesapeake Bay packed a large hall at George Mason University in Northern Virginia to press for action to save it.

“The room was literally humming,” recalled Ann Swanson, who had recently been hired by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation to organize grassroots support for the troubled estuary. “It was a noticeable vibrating, excited pulse.”

They had cause to be excited that day.

After decades of research, capped by a $27 million, five-year federal study cataloguing the Bay’s ills, the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, the mayor of the District of Columbia and the head of the Chesapeake Bay Commission in pledging to work together to turn things around.

The four-paragraph agreement signed Dec. 9 didn’t say much. It simply acknowledged that they needed to cooperate to “fully address the extent, complexity and sources of pollutants entering the Bay.”

Their signatures launched the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, which, as it marks its 40th anniversary this month, still drives the science and policymaking behind the Bay restoration effort.

Verna Harrison, then Maryland’s assistant natural resources secretary, said she and others charged with carrying out the first Bay agreement came away with a strong sense of optimism. She recalled thinking that the Chesapeake could be cleaned up in, say, 20 years or so.

Reality has long since set in, along with an understanding that the Bay will never be “restored” — whatever the future Chesapeake looks like, it will be different from its past, as population growth, development and climate change spur irreversible changes.

At times in the following decades, the partnership was heralded as a model for ecosystem restoration. At other times, it was derided as antiquated and ineffective. It has been a leader in estuarine science but has often struggled to mitigate the negative impacts of a rapidly growing population on the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed.

Setting goals

Despite the initial burst of enthusiasm, it was unclear exactly what the Bay Program was and what it was supposed to be doing. Initially, it focused on building a system to monitor the Bay’s health and a modeling system to offer insights about how to improve it.

The program itself was run by a series of committees representing all of the parties that had signed the agreement, operating in a collaborative, consensus-based way. Although the EPA had funds to operate a Bay Program office in Annapolis, it would not be running the show

A new, more expansive agreement clarified the program’s mission in 1987. It called for managing the Bay “as an integrated ecosystem” and said that “living resources are the main focus of the restoration and protection effort.”

It was a far-reaching document, establishing broad goals that have guided the Bay Program for 40 years: to reduce pollution; restore populations of fish, underwater grasses and other living resources; protect the watershed from the impacts of growth; improve public access to the Bay and its rivers; and promote public understanding and stewardship.

One goal stood out among them: reducing the amount of nutrient pollution entering the Bay 40% by the year 2000. Studies had implicated nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — as the prime cause of the Bay’s water quality woes, spurring algae blooms that clouded its surface and depleted the water of oxygen critical for aquatic life. That tended to elevate nutrient reduction over other goals.

The 1987 agreement was followed by two others in 2000 and 2014. Those began to spell out other goals with more specificity: the mileage of rivers to be opened to migrating fish, the amount of streamside forest buffers to be planted, the acreage of wetlands to be restored, the amount of land to be protected from development, and so on.

In many cases, the goals did drive action. Land conservation, public access to waterways, and outdoor education in schools are among many that got a boost.

Sometimes action came in dramatic form, as when a section of Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock River was dynamited in 2004, part of a broader effort to open rivers to migratory fish. Many more dams were removed, albeit less dramatically, and the region led the nation in dam removal. It has eliminated more than 200 dams in the past few decades.

Bay Program goals drove investments and programs at state and regional levels. Recognizing the important role forest buffers play in improving stream health, the Bay Program in 1996 called for planting 2,010 miles of buffers by 2010. The goal attracted new federal and state funding, and energetic support from watershed groups and others. It was achieved eight years early.

Outdoor education program
The Chesapeake Bay Program drove an increased emphasis on environmental education across the region. Here, students take in the view from a former fire tower in Clear Spring, MD, as part of a three-day program about watersheds and ecosystems. Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp

Goals and funding alone do not guarantee success, though. The program has set new goals for streamside buffers, but progress has dramatically slowed as it has become harder to find willing landowners to participate.

The 2014 agreement called for Maryland and Virginia to restore oyster populations, one of the Chesapeake’s most important species, in 10 Bay tributaries. That goal is on track to be achieved by 2025, with many restoration projects measuring hundreds of acres — the largest in the world. Already, they show signs of helping to revive local oyster habitat and populations.

That’s a big improvement from 1993, when Virginia undertook what was by far, at that time, the largest oyster restoration project ever attempted. It was about 2 acres in the Piankatank River, and it failed.

Off track

The Bay Program has also seen misfires. Despite warnings dating to the 1987 agreement that rampant sprawl was gobbling up the landscape, drying up wetlands and destroying stream habitats, the Bay Program has never been able to grapple with the problem.

When negotiating a new Bay agreement in 2000, it took months of wrangling to come up with a goal: to reduce the rate of “harmful” sprawl by 30%. But it could never determine what “harmful” sprawl was.

After years of debate, the effort fizzled even as evidence mounted that development was destroying streams — brook trout disappear when as little as 2% of a watershed is developed, and runoff from pavement is increasing salinity in freshwater systems and warming their temperatures.

The Bay Program has sought to prioritize wetland protection and restoration for decades. Yet it has long struggled to create significant amounts of new wetlands, and it is unclear whether the overall acreage of wetlands is increasing or decreasing.

In 1994, Bay Program leaders in the Chesapeake Executive Council called for a Bay “free of toxic impacts,” but chemical contaminants have declined as a priority even as fish consumption advisories remain in place for much of the Chesapeake and its tributaries and new contaminants emerge.

As far back as 1991, the Bay Program called for increasing its diversity and bringing more attention to underrepresented communities, an objective it still struggles with more than three decades later.Sapling in buffer plantings

The nutrient reduction goals, which served as the cornerstone for much of the Bay effort, are a mixed bag of results.

The EPA, states and wastewater treatment plant operators agreed on a strategy in 2005 to reduce nutrient discharges at all major plants in the watershed. Without that, nutrients from sewage — fueled by a rapidly growing population — would have overtaken agriculture as the largest source of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Chesapeake.

Instead, discharges from wastewater plants have sharply declined. Nitrogen discharges have decreased by two thirds and phosphorus by three quarters. Wastewater plants have already met goals set for 2025, even as the region’s population continues to grow.

Controlling agricultural runoff, the largest source of nutrients, has turned out to be more complex. Significant regionwide reductions have proven difficult. Data suggest, though, that efforts over the last 15 years have held the line, despite increases in crop production and growing numbers of chickens and other farm animals.

Runoff from developed lands is increasing, at least according to Bay Program computer models, a reflection of the region’s continuing difficulty with managing the impacts of development.


Rich Batiuk, who spent 33 years at the EPA Bay Program Office before retiring in 2018 as its associate director for science, said the legacy of the Bay Program is measured not just by whether goals were achieved or missed.

The goals it has set, the monitoring data it produces, and the attention and funding it has attracted toward the Chesapeake has created a vast human “infrastructure” of engaged scientists, citizens, activists and others who participate in the Bay restoration effort in some way, whether helping with a stream cleanup or prodding for greater action.

“To me, that’s is one of the legacies of what we what we’ve been able to put together here,” Batiuk said.

The Bay Program has engaged the scientific community in ways that go far beyond most other ecosystem-based programs, which has spurred action even when political leadership could not reach agreement on issues. For instance, when some states contemplated introducing a nonnative oyster to the Chesapeake region, the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee raised concerns and insisted on more study.

That ultimately blocked their introduction and led to a new strategy emphasizing aquaculture for commercial harvest coupled with large-scale restoration efforts. That approach seems to be bearing fruit.

Collaboration between state and federal officials, scientists and various stakeholders led the region to develop the most sophisticated set of water quality goals for any major water body in the nation, describing the amount of oxygen needed in different places of the Bay, as well as the amount of light needed by underwater grasses.

That collaboration grew as the states of West Virginia, Delaware and New York joined the partnership.

Forums created by the Bay program led fishery managers from Maryland and Virginia to work together in ways they had not done before, coordinating management of species such as blue crabs in ways once unimaginable.

“It’s almost this nursery ground for that collaboration between a whole bunch of different partners to do things that they might not do otherwise,” Batiuk said.

Looking ahead

When it comes to the bottom line — whether the Bay is getting better — the answer is mixed. Nutrients have decreased, and many areas show improvement from their mid-1980s condition. But less than a third of the Chesapeake has met its water quality goals.

The amount of underwater grass beds, which are a critical habitat for fish, waterfowl and blue crabs and a closely watched indicator of Bay health, have doubled since reaching their low point in 1984. Last year, they covered more than 76,000 acres, though they remain far from their 185,000-acre goal.

“Against the backdrop of almost a 60% increase in human population, development in the watershed and intensification of agriculture, the fact that the partnership not only held the line, but actually made improvements in water quality — maybe not as much as we wanted — I think was a tremendous success,” Batiuk said.

Now, as the Bay Program celebrates its 40th anniversary, its partners are contemplating what comes after 2025, the deadline for meeting most of the 31 outcomes set in its 2014 agreement. Of those, 15 are on track, 10 are off-course and the status of four others is unclear. Nutrient goals will be missed by a large margin.

Dam removal
A goal to open more river miles to migratory fish led to hundreds of dam removals in the Bay region. This 2004 photo shows the removal of a dam on Octoraro Creek in Cecil County, MD. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Some say deadlines should simply be extended. Others believe that a broader overhaul is needed, especially with the significant challenges posed by climate change, development and a human population that has grown from 13 million when the Bay effort started to more than 18 million today.

Because of those headwinds, a recent report by the program’s science advisory committee cautioned that the future Bay will be different than the past. It warned that nutrient goals are unlikely to be met without new programs and new technologies, and it suggested targeting nutrient control efforts, paired with habitat restoration, in shallow areas where they will likely have the greatest benefit for living resources.

“I certainly thought in my career that we would have achieved massive restoration,” said Swanson, who retired at the end of 2022 after 35 years as executive director of the Bay Commission, which is made up of state legislators from across the Chesapeake region.

“What I realize in hindsight is that we did, but [the Bay] is so massive and it’s so degraded that to … essentially improve water quality by a third while the population [increased is a huge achievement.”

Swanson and others worry that the decades-long effort and slow progress is leading to “Bay fatigue” as it is increasingly evident that the task will never be completed, and progress will likely be incremental.

That seemed evident at the latest executive council meeting in October. Only one governor, Maryland’s Wes Moore, showed up. The EPA administrator and DC mayor also sent surrogates. Besides Moore, the chair of the Bay Commission was the only other member to attend.

To some, the loss of enthusiasm is noticeable and perhaps understandable.

“There’s certainly, I think, to some degree a feeling of exasperation that we haven’t achieved these goals, putting aside whether the goals were realistic to begin with,” said John Griffin, who has spent more than four decades working on the Bay in Maryland state government and nonprofits.

Griffin thinks it’s time to recalibrate people’s expectations and gird them for what he sees as yet another multi-decade effort to improve water quality and habitat.

“I think we have to tell the public: ‘Look we’re not doing as well as we should across the Bay … but we’ve made some progress … We need to set goals that are more achievable, and we need to realize that we’re going to be in this a long time.”

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