On a warm, sunny afternoon in June 2014, state, federal and local officials leading the long-running 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 even 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.

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

“Today we celebrate the most inclusive, collaborative, goal-oriented agreement the Chesapeake Bay watershed has ever seen,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. 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.

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, as promised.

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 or in planning for the remainder.

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

A recent review by some members of the Chesapeake Bay Program, the federal-state partnership guiding the restoration effort, found that seven of those 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.

The agreement’s checkered track record reflects this sobering fact: Overall, the region is far off pace in doing what’s needed to restore the Bay. Many of those shortcomings will have local impacts, too, in failing to restore streams and rivers and provide crucial wildlife habitat. Efforts to increase forest buffers along streams — critical water quality, as well as fish, birds and amphibians — have largely stalled. Similarly, efforts to restore wetlands, already near historically low levels, are dragging, despite their importance for water quality and habitat. And as the watershed’s human population grows and more land is developed, efforts to maintain what’s left are struggling.

In the 2014 agreement, for example, the states and 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. 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.

“We really should be very concerned about the progress we’re making,” Swanson said, with expanding forests and wetlands.

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.”

Corson, director of the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the group’s report, submitted in March to the Bay Program’s management board, is intended to get the attention of restoration leaders. The board is scheduled to meet May 12–13 to conduct its latest biennial status check on progress toward fulfilling the agreement.

“I think it’s incumbent on us to explore all the avenues, to really make sure that we ask ourselves, ‘Can we do this? Is it possible? Could things be changed?’ ” Corson said. “And if the answer is no,” he added, “it’s important to … start communicating that to our constituents.”

Shaping the 2025 goals

Those involved in crafting the 2014 Bay Watershed Agreement say that falling short of its stated goals and outcomes does not mean the overall restoration effort is failing. It was never intended as a definitive road map, they say, but rather a set of directions to get everyone moving in the right direction.

Chesapeake 2000, the preceding restoration pact, had been too detailed and ambitious, said Nick DiPasquale, who directed the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program office from 2011 through 2017. It was larded with more than 100 goals, many of which were not met.

“It had deadlines that were supposed to be met by 2010,” DiPasquale recalled. “But obviously that didn’t happen. I think it was kind of an overreach.”

So, beginning in 2012, state and federal officials began drawing up a new pact, winnowing down the previous goals while adding a few new ones. In the process, they walked back or abandoned a number of commitments in the 2000 Bay pact, including goals for difficult and politically touchy issues like curbing sprawl development and freeing the Bay of toxic contaminants.

“The sense was to make as many of the outcomes so that they’re achievable, measurable and you’d know when they’re met,” said Carin Bisland, chief of partnerships and accountability in the EPA Bay Program office.

“A lot of the outcomes were what the partnership thought they could get to by 2025,” she added, not necessarily what anyone thought would be needed to get a fully restored Bay.

In hindsight, a number of the targets in the 2014 agreement are also considered idealistic or unlikely, at least by 2025. And one-third of the outcomes set only a general goal to “continually increase” or “continually monitor” some effort or issue.

Even so, there’s no data to enable an assessment for some of those general outcomes, and some efforts are losing steam or going in the wrong direction.

Nutrient pollution

There are often particular reasons for each Bay agreement shortfall. But there are some common threads.

On the core issue of restoring the Bay’s water quality, the jurisdictions agreed to have all of the pollution control practices and programs in place by 2025 to meet the nutrient and sediment reduction targets called for in the total maximum daily load, or “pollution diet,” that the EPA developed in 2010.

As of 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, the states and District have reached the overall sediment reduction target. But they have only done enough so far to achieve 39% of the needed 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 by 2025. 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.”

Not only is the region not on track to meet nitrogen goals, new modeling indicates the jurisdictions will need to reduce nitrogen pollution by an extra 5 million pounds to offset the impacts of climate change on Bay water quality, Martin said. They will also need to reduce an additional 6 million pounds, he added, to remove nitrogen no longer being captured by the Conowingo Dam. Combined, they require about 20% more nitrogen reductions between 2019 and 2025 than originally thought.

Pennsylvania is lagging badly in meeting its reduction targets, which led Maryland, Virginia, the District and environmental groups to sue the EPA for not taking action to enforce its pollution diet. But the Keystone State is not the only jurisdiction expected to struggle. Maryland, Virginia, New York and Delaware also face challenges because between now and 2025 they rely heavily on reductions from agriculture and stormwater, two areas where they have struggled in the past.

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.

Wetlands, forests & grasses

The same challenges hamper efforts to extend forest buffers and restore or create wetlands. Most of the available sites are on farms, and farmers are reluctant to give up acreage used for growing crops or grazing livestock.

Wetlands restoration is likewise handicapped by the reluctance of farmers and other landowners, say those engaged in trying to advance the effort. 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.

There are federal and state programs that offer farmers financial incentives to give up land for streamside forests and wetlands, the largest of which is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. But many farmers have soured on that program because of the red tape involved in participating, the burden of maintaining the trees for 15 years and the program’s recent history of erratic funding and administration.

“Honestly, it’s so hard to get traction,” said Sally Claggett, the U.S. Forest Service liaison to the Bay Program. States frustrated with the federal program have begun offering their own incentives to create stream buffers, but those have yet to really take off. One glimmer of hope: The Biden administration just announced that it would expand the USDA umbrella program that pays farmers to set land aside for riparian buffers and wetlands.

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.

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 of having 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.

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.”

Murky status

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.

Efforts to restore two key fish and wildlife species — brook trout and black duck — are similarly in the dark.

On brook trout, 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.

The agreement likewise pledged to restore habitat for black duck, considered an indicator of the status of waterfowl, in general, in the Bay watershed. Experts figure more than 700,000 acres of wetlands are needed to support the hoped-for wintertime population of 100,000 black ducks. Surveys indicate there’s a shortage of about 150,000 acres.

It’s not clear because of reporting gaps in how much progress has been made toward increasing wetland habitat, said Ben Lewis, a scientist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources who leads the Bay Program’s black duck team. The birds’ winter population is only about half of the desired level.

Moving targets

A few of the agreement’s outcomes have been tweaked, which proponents cite as examples of “adaptive management” — 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.

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.

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, according to Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay office, who is vice chair of the Bay Program’s diversity workgroup.

O’Sullivan said she believes the outcome was identified as unlikely to be met to highlight the need to increase those efforts.

“For the long-term success of the Chesapeake Bay Program and its efforts, it really depends on people,” O’Sullivan said, and on the “equitable and just inclusion of peoples throughout the watershed.”

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.”

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.

“The time for all of these commitments … has long passed,” Winegrad said.

“It’s time for penalties. 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. With climate change and other challenges, to even maintain status quo, she added, “it’s important that we stay on this and push forward. It will only be harder.”

 

By Tim Wheeler