Early History and Formation of the Bay Program

The Chesapeake Bay was the first estuary in the nation targeted by Congress for restoration and protection. In the late 1970s, U.S. Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias (R-Md.) sponsored a Congressionally funded $27 million, five-year study to analyze the Bay’s rapid loss of wildlife and aquatic life. The study, which was published in the early 1980s, identified excess nutrient pollution as the main source of the Bay's degradation. These initial research findings led to the formation of the Chesapeake Bay Program as the means to restore the Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983

The original Chesapeake Bay Agreement was a simple, one-page pledge signed in 1983. The agreement recognized that a cooperative approach was necessary to address the Bay’s pollution problems. It also established a Chesapeake Bay liaison office in Annapolis, Maryland.

The signatories of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983 became the Chesapeake Executive Council:

  • the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia,
  • the mayor of the District of Columbia,
  • the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and
  • the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

The 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement

The 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement set the first numeric goals to reduce pollution and restore the Bay ecosystem. Among other goals, the agreement aimed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Bay by 40 percent by 2000. Agreeing to numeric goals with specific deadlines was unprecedented in 1987, but the practice has become a hallmark of the Bay Program.

In amendments added in 1992, Bay Program partners agreed to attack nutrients at the source: upstream in the Bay's rivers. The Bay Program also began reevaluating its Basinwide Toxics Reduction Strategy to better understand the effects of chemical contaminants on the Bay’s aquatic life.

Chesapeake 2000

In 2000, Bay Program partners signed Chesapeake 2000, a comprehensive agreement that set a clear vision and strategy to guide restoration efforts through 2010. Chesapeake 2000 established 102 goals to reduce pollution, restore habitats, protect living resources, promote sound land use practices and engage the public in Bay restoration. It was also the first Bay agreement to emphasize ecosystem-based fisheries management.

Chesapeake 2000 marked the first time that the Bay’s “headwater states”— Delaware, New York and West Virginia—officially joined the Bay Program’s restoration efforts. The governors of New York and Delaware committed to Chesapeake 2000’s water quality goals through a memorandum of understanding signed in 2000. The governor of West Virginia added his signature in 2002.

Chesapeake 2000’s success was mixed. The agreement laid the groundwork for restoration efforts in the 2000s and beyond. Bay Program partners achieved significant restoration gains in certain areas, such as land conservation, forest buffer restoration and reopening fish passage. However, limited progress was made toward many other health and restoration measures, including oyster abundance and reducing nutrient pollution from agriculture and urban areas.

Chesapeake Bay Executive Order and Two-year Milestones

In 2009, President Obama issued an executive order (EO 13508) that called on the federal government to renew the effort to protect and restore the watershed. That same year, the Chesapeake Executive Council set short-term restoration goals—called two-year milestones—to hasten restoration and increase accountability.

Chesapeake Bay TMDL and Watershed Implementation Plans

In 2010, the EPA established the landmark Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is a federal “pollution diet” that sets limits on the amount of nutrients and sediment that can enter the Bay and its tidal rivers to meet water quality goals.

Each of the seven Bay jurisdictions has created Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) that spells out detailed, specific steps the jurisdiction will take to meet these pollution reductions by 2025. Federal, state and local governments coordinate through the Bay Program partnership to develop the WIPs.

The WIPs will guide local and state Bay restoration efforts through the next decade and beyond. The Bay jurisdictions will use their two-year milestones to track and assess progress toward completing the restoration actions in their WIPs.

While the TMDL was challenged in 2011, a federal judge upheld the pollution limits in a 2013 ruling, an appeals court upheld the decision in a 2015 decision and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2016. In 2014, Chesapeake Bay Program partners incorporated the TMDL into the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement

In 2009, the Chesapeake Bay Program began drafting a new agreement that would accelerate restoration and align federal directives with state and local goals to create a healthy Bay. Our partners gathered input from citizens, stakeholders, academic institutions, local governments and more to draft an inclusive, goal-oriented document that would address current and emerging environmental concerns. On June 16, 2014, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement was signed, and amended on January 24, 2020.

Signatories included representatives from the entire watershed, committing for the first time the Bay’s headwater states to full partnership in the Bay Program. The agreement established 10 goals and 31 outcomes to restore the Bay, its tributaries and the lands that surround them.

Our Goal Implementation Teams developed Management Strategies that outline the steps necessary to achieve the agreement’s vision. These Management Strategies offer insight into the Bay Program partners’ proposals for reaching each outcome by 2025, as well as how we will monitor, assess and report progress toward abundant life, clean waters, engaged communities, conserved lands and climate change resilience. The strategies provide broad, overarching direction and will be further supported by Logic & Action Plans, which illustrate the link between what could impact the partnership’s ability to achieve an outcome and the actions it is taking to achieve the outcome.

In 2017, the Bay Program developed the Strategy Review System (SRS), a structured process that applies adaptive management to the partnership’s work toward the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. This process is further supported and documented through ChesapeakeDecisions.