What Should the Future of Chesapeake Bay Watershed Restoration Look Like?

Sunrise on the Bay Yellow - Dean Thomas Harrison - 1171x593

Dean Thomas Harrison

Leading researchers across the watershed released a seminal scientific report in May that sought to answer the question so many people are asking: Why is restoration taking so long? Here's what it found.

Recently, dozens of scientists from across the watershed who advise the federal/state Chesapeake Bay cleanup partnership released a major, joint report about why significant progress toward clean water has remained so elusive for decades. The authors of the Comprehensive Evaluation of System Response (CESR) study set out to answer one big question: why, despite decades of cleanup efforts, is the Bay not improving as much as it should be? Importantly, it also outlines key findings that could accelerate progress in both the near and long term.

The study took over four years to produce and spans 130 pages in its entirety. While CBF's science and policy teams are still combing through its implications, here are five big takeaways:

1. People, pollution, and the Bay's living resources are not responding to cleanup efforts as well as expected.

The report identified two big 'gaps' that help explain why progress is proving much more difficult than expected.

First, there is a large 'implementation gap'—meaning the practices that reduce pollution have not been adopted at the scale necessary to achieve the targets for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution required by the watershed's cleanup plan, the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. In other words, large-scale changes in human behavior have been difficult to achieve, especially when it comes to reducing diffuse sources of pollution from farms and urban areas.

Second, there is a large 'response gap.' This means that even where practices have been implemented, water quality is not always improving as much or as quickly as expected. In addition, the Bay's 'living resources'—the plants and animals that live in the watershed—are not always responding to water quality improvements as directly as hoped.

That being said, the report does note pollution is declining overall, even as climate change and a growing population make the job more difficult. But there's more going on that complicates the end results.

2. Money isn't the only barrier to restoration progress. Policies and programs need reform, too.

Closing these gaps will likely require significant changes to current restoration programs. One key issue identified by the CESR report is the way the Bay cleanup counts progress toward water quality targets. In essence, states are given credit toward meeting their targets according to the number of pollution-reduction projects they implement—for example, the acres of cover crops farmers plant or the number of rain gardens cities install. The CESR authors note that, in the real world, the effectiveness of these projects can vary wildly by location and many other factors, even across the same parcel of land. However, the current accounting framework doesn't differentiate crediting except for at a course scale (I.e. 5,000-20,000 acres) gives states the same amount of credit regardless of where they occur across large areas (I.e. 5,000-20,000 acres) of the watershed.

In other words, the accounting framework currently incentivizes states to implement a large number of pollution-reduction projects. It does not reward them for prioritizing those projects in the most effective places or actually measuring real outcomes, like water quality improvements. At the end of the day, while funding restoration programs remains critical, it's unlikely to speed up progress if those dollars aren't being targeted to the areas and projects that are most effective.

3. There is huge opportunity, right now, to improve the wellbeing of the watershed's human and wildlife communities—especially in shallow waters, rivers, and streams.

The CESR report is clear about the challenges facing total achievement of water quality targets, but it is also clear that restoration efforts can do more to amplify the benefits to people and wildlife at any level of progress.

To date, Bay restoration has focused largely on the most difficult task: reducing nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution to levels that will improve water quality in the very deepest part of the Chesapeake Bay. This is largely because those targets are legally enforceable under the Clean Water Act. However, most of the Bay's human and wildlife communities spend their lives in the shallow waters, rivers, and streams that weave across the watershed's 64,000-square miles. While water quality improvements in the Bay's deep channel and the pollution reductions required to meet them remain important, the CESR report notes that the cleanup can likely achieve much greater success, much sooner if restoration efforts focus more on these shallow-water areas. That includes efforts to improve water quality as well as efforts to improve habitat, such as living shorelines and oyster reefs, and other factors that affect the resilience of the watershed's living resources and communities. Doing so could also help reach positive 'tipping points' that accelerate restoration locally, while still making progress toward improving water quality in the deep parts of the Bay.

4. We can't solve this without addressing pollution from agriculture and urban growth.

At its heart, the Bay watershed's pollution problem boils down to too many nutrients entering the water and throwing the system out of balance. In certain places, so many nutrients are imported into the watershed, primarily in the form of animal feed and fertilizers, that efforts to reduce them once they're here just can't keep up. The CESR report calls this a 'mass balance' problem, and it is increasing as livestock farming intensifies . At the same time, the watershed's ability to naturally process and store these nutrients is being lost as urban areas expand and healthy soils, forests, and wetlands are lost to pavement and buildings.

The CESR report concludes that solving this problem ultimately requires tackling the source of pollution, not just treating the symptoms. The report's authors do not give policy prescriptions, but do urge restoration leaders to consider innovation—including the ability to test new ideas while still pursuing overall cleanup targets—as well as the larger tradeoffs inherent in the region's food systems and development patterns.

5. Success will come in stages, not all at once. And it will look different than the past.

A difficult but important takeaway from the CESR report is that solving these problems will take time. Total success—achieving full attainment of water quality standards in the deepest part of the Bay—could be many decades away. The good news is there are many things the restoration partnership can do right now to accelerate water quality improvements and maximize the benefits of those improvements for communities and wildlife, especially in shallow water environments. That means the watershed can get much healthier than it is now in a much shorter amount of time. These interim milestones will be especially important to achieve as climate change and population growth continue to shape the Bay watershed in new ways, with much of the impact felt in the same shallow water areas. Ultimately, the CESR report cautions that the road to a healthy Bay will not look like a road 'back' to the Bay of the pre-colonial past. But it can still lead us to a future watershed with the same vibrancy and dynamism that has made this estuary a cauldron of life for centuries.

It's hard to overstate the significance of the CESR study. It comes at a critical moment for watershed restoration, as leaders face the reality of missing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint's 2025 deadline and consider next steps. Much like the original Chesapeake Bay studies that kicked off the watershed cleanup in the 1980s, the CESR report will likely have far-reaching implications for restoration efforts moving forward. Stay tuned for more as we continue to assess how we can apply the report's findings to ramp up progress.

Joseph Wood 90x110

Joseph Wood, Ph.D.

Virginia Senior Scientist, CBF

Issues in this Post

Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint   Agriculture   Climate Change   Runoff Pollution   Water Quality   Wetlands Protection  


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