It’s going to take some time to figure out how — or even whether — lagging Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts can be put on track to reach their goals by the 2025 deadline.

With a third or more of the restoration efforts either struggling or in limbo, the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program’s Management Board held a two-day meeting in mid-May to “clarify actions and roles” to meet the targets set seven years ago. But it didn’t come up with a clear game plan for addressing the underperforming efforts.

The virtual meeting included a brief rundown on the status of all 31 restoration outcomes pledged in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to help restore and protect what it called “one of the most extraordinary places in America.” The agreement was signed in 2014 by the six Bay watershed states as well as the District of Columbia, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative advisory body.

An internal review earlier this year by some members of the Bay Program found that seven of those outcomes are “unlikely to be met without a significant change in course.” Among them are pledges to plant many more pollution-buffering trees in urban areas and along rivers and streams, restore wetlands and rebuild the populations of brook trout and black duck.

Some other efforts, including increasing fish passages and restoring underwater grasses, are also far short of their goals, while others lack sufficient data to tell how much progress, if any, has been made.

Participants hashed over some of those problems, but by the time the meeting ended they had brainstormed ways to catch up for just two of the lagging efforts — riparian buffers and wetlands.

Those two goals are most off track, yet they are considered keys to reducing water pollution and sustaining fish and wildlife throughout the watershed, especially as climate changes.

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

“We’re a long way off and have been for some time,” Sally Claggett, Bay Program staff coordinator for the buffer effort, told the group.

The jurisdictions also pledged to create or restore 85,000 acres of wetlands by 2025. As of 2019, they had added only 16,000 acres — less than 20% of the goal.

While some might question whether the wetland target is feasible, Christine Conn, co-chair of the Bay Program’s habitat goal team, said it represents less than 1% of agricultural land suitable for wetland restoration. Historically, she noted, the watershed has lost 1.5 million acres, and it has the potential to bring back as much as 1 million acres.

Similar challenges hamper both efforts. Most of the available sites for planting streamside buffers and creating wetlands are on farms, and farmers are reluctant to give up acreage used for growing crops or grazing livestock. Those and other Bay restoration efforts also struggle with inconsistent funding and staff shortages.

Claggett said the buffer-planting effort has been hampered by the often-confusing structure of the federal program that’s been the chief source of funds to pay for it, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP. What’s needed now, she suggested, is a broader federal and state effort with some innovative private financing.

Meeting participants, who had been urged to “think big” about how to boost the buffer and wetlands efforts, suggested a variety of ways to offer greater financial incentives to landowners. But the session ended without any discussion of what would be done with those ideas.

Some participants questioned the lack of more in-depth discussion of all of the lagging outcomes. One participant complained that “we don’t spend right amount of time trying to come up with solutions.”

The meeting organizers defended the format. Greg Barranco, an EPA Bay Program staffer who was co-chair of the meeting, said the session was more broadly focused on getting state and federal agency representatives to assess restoration progress through its “strategy review system,” which is designed to look at lessons learned and how they lessons can be applied in coming years. Boring in on the causes and remedies for all the flagging efforts will come later, he said.

“There’s still too much to dig into before we can have a meeting that is focused just on the outcomes,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “I think having a really deep dive is premature.”

Sean Corson, head of the small group of Bay Program participants who had warned that seven outcomes are unlikely to be met, said he still thought the meeting had been productive. At least for forest buffers and wetlands, he said, the message was clear that “we’re going to need some pretty new thinking to make the kinds of strides that we’ve got to make, given the current status where we are.” He said he was hopeful the brainstorming produced “a couple ideas that might really accelerate progress in those two areas.”

Beyond that, Corson said he believed the Bay Program’s leadership needs to find remedies for all of the lagging outcomes.

“A relatively small group is going to have to sit down and look for some practical and meaningful solutions that can be implemented over the next five years or so,” he said.

Barranco said Bay Program managers would review the ideas that came out of all the sessions, including the brainstorming groups, and figure out the next steps to take in the coming weeks and months.

“These are complex issues,” he concluded, “and we didn’t expect to have immediate solutions but to start the dialogue about getting to innovative solutions.”

By Tim Wheeler