For the past two and a half years, the Chesapeake Bay Program has been working on a new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, an accord that will guide the collaborative restoration and conservation efforts of the six states and the District of Columbia in the 64,000 square mile network of land and waters that drains to the Chesapeake. Meaningful public review and input has proven critical to this process.
Image courtesy B Tal/Flickr
The first opportunity to gain public input occurred in July 2013, when the agreement’s framework was put out for public review. Interested parties were able to submit comments in writing, through our website and during a public meeting; through these channels, representatives of various organizations asked questions or expressed their views on various topics of discussion. This level of transparency and inclusiveness is characteristic of the manner in which the Bay Program conducts its affairs.
In addition to these opportunities, the Bay Program’s staff and leadership engaged in numerous outreach activities, addressing advisory committees, watershed organizations and local communities to ensure they were aware of this effort and could participate in a meaningful and informed way. A second opportunity for formal public comment was provided this past February on a more substantive draft agreement. In all, more than 2,400 comments were received from throughout the watershed. Each comment was reviewed, evaluated and taken into account during the decision-making process. Each step in this process was open and transparent, and summaries of all comments and how they were responded to were made available.
Image courtesy Rusty Sheriff/Flickr
Transparency and accountability have been themes throughout the development of the new agreement. And we will continue our efforts to be open and accountable as we move into the next steps of our efforts—the development of Management Strategies, an important new component of this agreement. These strategies will serve as written documentation for how we intend to achieve our goals and outcomes, and will be developed by our Goal Implementation Teams. Once a draft Management Strategy is developed, a public notice will be issued and an opportunity for public input will be provided. As before, this input will be used to consider making changes to the Management Strategies before they are finalized for implementation.
Management Strategies will specify exactly what each of the Bay Program partners will contribute, how they will address impacts associated with climate change, what resources and information they will bring to the table, how they will interact and engage communities and involve local governments, and how they will use the adaptive management process to review indicators and monitoring data and make well-documented, science-based decisions. The partnership’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee will assist the Goal Implementation Teams in developing new indicators and performance metrics to ensure they are collecting appropriate data and information to measure progress toward their outcomes and to make warranted adjustments, if necessary.
Each of these Management Strategies will be reviewed and evaluated on a biennial basis. The two-year reviews will be presented to the partnership’s governance structure for discussion and feedback. All of the Management Strategies and two-year reviews will be publicly available so progress toward the agreement’s goals and outcomes can be tracked. This level of transparency and accountability, as well as public engagement and outreach, is unprecedented in any previous agreements intended to guide the Bay restoration effort.
Image courtesy Alicia Pimental/Flickr
In my 25-year career in public service, I have not witnessed a more genuine effort to solicit public input and to give that input serious consideration. That input resulted in significant improvements in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Goals and outcomes that were not included or previously rejected were reconsidered and inserted in the new agreement as a direct result of public input. Not every comment was addressed in exactly the way it was submitted; but every comment did get deliberate consideration and was addressed in some manner by the partnership’s leadership, which includes many secretaries of state environmental agencies, federal agency representatives and leaders of non-governmental and advisory groups. In the end, the final agreement is a much clearer, stronger and more comprehensive document because of the input we received from concerned and engaged citizens throughout the watershed.
This “next generation” agreement will guide restoration of the Bay watershed and ecosystem in the decades ahead. Implementation of the new agreement will continue to be influenced and shaped by the interests, knowledge and expertise of every individual, organization, community, local government, business and partner that is willing to engage and be involved in this endeavor. On behalf of the entire Bay Program, I want to express our genuine gratitude for taking the time and making the effort to share your thoughts, concerns and suggestions with us on the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. It made a very distinct and significant difference in the outcome.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
A habitat is the natural environment in which plants, animals and other organisms live, feed and breed. Many habitats are shared by numerous living things, forming what is called an ecosystem. Ecosystems range in size and can be as tiny as a patch of dirt or as large as the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Sometimes, different species within the same ecosystem are forced to compete for resources like food, water and shelter. Dominant species and environmental stressors can take their toll on lesser plants and animals.
Rapidly increasing human development contributes to this environmental stress: as our population rises, so does our demand for the same resources that many plants and animals also depend on to survive. We build dams to control stream flow and capture energy, develop wilderness into urban hubs and use our finite freshwater resources at an alarming rate.
Migratory fish are particularly sensitive to ecosystem changes because they rely on certain migration routes between connected habitats to reach their breeding grounds. Dams, road culverts and other blockages that fragment waterways can act as barriers to fish passage.
In an effort to better understand the effect that dams and other manmade structures have on fish passage, Steve Minkkinen, project leader at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Maryland Fisheries Office, has teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a 10-year survey of American eel populations in the Susquehanna River.
“We learned quite a bit in 2013. We collected 300,000 juveniles [eels] and transported them above the [Conowingo] Dam. The dam has been blocking the [eels’] migration up the Susquehanna River,” Minkkinen explained. “There has been a lot of work [to open] upstream passage for shad and river herring,” Minkkinen continued. But that work has only focused on adult fish, and as Minkkinen pointed out, the dam’s flow is too fast for younger eels to travel through.
Monitoring American eels is important: at historic levels, they made up 20 percent of the freshwater biomass along the Eastern seaboard. However, the introduction of dams and other structures has blocked eel populations from important migration routes, changing eel populations.
Researchers capture and inject chips known as passive integrated transponders, or PIT tags, into the eels. These tags can be detected in future surveys and help the team track eel populations by letting them know if they are encountering a new eel or one that was caught during a previous survey.
The American eel is the only catadromous fish in the Bay region, which means they spend most of their lives in fresh water but migrate to the ocean to spawn. Spawning takes place in late January when the fish swim out of the Bay and into the Sargasso Sea, a portion of the Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas.
Eel larvae drift in ocean currents for nine to 12 months before reaching fresh water and swimming upstream. Monitoring allows scientists to study the migration habits of juvenile eels and learn how to aid their upstream journey.
Minkkinen and his team believe that if fish passage to the upper Susquehanna opens, both American eels and freshwater mussels would thrive. This bivalve relies on fish to store their eggs in their gills until the mussels turn into microscopic juveniles and drop off. Mussel populations in the upper Susquehanna are, for the most part, comprised of older, larger individuals. Because mussels are natural filter feeders, Minkkinen’s team believes that a rise in freshwater mussels will lead to cleaner water and a healthier ecosystem.
“Our hopes are that we can develop passage and restore eel and mussel habitat to that [upper Susquehanna] portion of the watershed,” Minkkinen said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
Reducing runoff from farmland has lowered pollution in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania waters, indicating a boost in on-farm best management practices could lead to improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
In a report released earlier this year, researchers with the Chesapeake Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use case studies to show that planting cover crops, managing manure and excluding cattle from rivers and streams can lower nutrient concentrations and, in some cases, sediment loads in nearby waters.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired the Bay: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life, while sediment can cloud the water and suffocate shellfish. In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists make clear that putting nutrient- and sediment-reducing practices in place on farms can improve water quality and aquatic habitat in as little as one to six years.
Planting winter cover crops on farm fields in the Wye River basin, for instance, lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into local groundwater, while planting cover crops and exporting nutrient-rich rich poultry litter in the upper Pocomoke River watershed lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Eastern Shore waterway. In addition, several studies in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania showed that when cattle were excluded from streams, plant growth rebounded, nutrient and sediment levels declined and stream habitat and bank stability improved.
Image courtesy Chiot's Run/Flickr
Earlier this week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named the Bay watershed one of eight “critical conservation areas” under the new Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will bring farmers and watershed organizations together to earn funds for soil and water conservation.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) measured minimal changes in Chesapeake Bay health in 2013, once again giving the estuary a “C” in their annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
This grade was the same in 2012, up from a “D+” in 2011. The Bay Health Index was reached using several indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses, and the strength of certain fish stocks, including blue crab and striped bass. Introduced in this year’s report card, the Climate Change Resilience Index will measure the Bay’s ability to withstand rising sea levels, rising water temperatures and other impacts of climate change.
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison attributed the Bay’s steady course to local management actions. While pollution-reducing technologies installed at wastewater treatment plants have improved the health of some rivers along the Bay’s Western Shore, continued fertilizer applications and agricultural runoff have stalled improvements along the Eastern Shore, Dennison said in a media release.