Chesapeake Bay and Watershed


The Chesapeake Bay (Bay) is the largest estuary in the United States and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the over 150 major rivers in the surrounding watershed. The Bay is within Virginia and Maryland, while the watershed extends to New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The extremely productive Bay and surrounding lands encouraged numerous early settlements in the area along with rapid growth in agriculture, industry, and population starting in the 1700s thought the 1800s. After WWII extensive urban development accelerated, along with increased use of fertilizers on agricultural lands, leading to degraded water quality, loss of habitat and over fishing.

Why is this system important?

The Bay and watershed covers about 64,000 square miles. The ecosystem is complex and supports over 3,600 species of plants and animals. Threatened and endangered species that rely on the Bay ecosystem include the atlantic sturgeon, the puritan tiger beetle, and the loggerhead sea turtle. Almost 18 million people live within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, most of which rely on the system for drinking water. The Chesapeake Bay system heavily bolsters the region’s economy by supporting commercial fishing. Each year, 500 million pounds of seafood are harvested, yet productivity used to be much greater. Oyster harvests have fallen to less than 1 percent of historic levels. Other industries reliant on the Bay include tourism and recreation, agriculture, real estate, and shipping. In 2009, the lands and water of the Bay region provided an estimated $107.2 billion annually in general economic benefits. It is projected that by restoring the Bay, rivers, and streams, the economic activity driven by the Bay will increase by $22.5 billion a year.

What are major challenges?

The major threats to the Chesapeake Bay are population growth and associated effects of land-use change, pollution, and resource consumption.. Forests and wetlands provide critical wildlife habitat, protect clean water and air, and support recreation and the economy. By the late 1800s, 40-50 percent of the watershed’s forest had been harvested for timber and to make space for agriculture and urban development. Between 1990 and 2005, about 100 acres of forest habitat were lost each day to urban and agricultural development. Increases in impervious surfaces have also results from development. The major pollution input to the Bay is excess nutrients, which come from agriculture and urban runoff, wastewater treatment plants, and air pollution. Excess nutrients fuel harmful algal blooms, which deplete the water of oxygen and suffocate aquatic life. Two other major sources of pollution are chemical contaminants (including pesticides) and sediment. Some resource management actions have led to over harvesting of fisheries and introduction of invasive species (like the blue catfish and zebra mussel),). These challenges are compounded by climate change, which causes warming temperatures and more frequent occurrences of extreme weather.

How is restoration and scientific research organized?

The Chesapeake Bay Program was formed in 1983 to guide restoration efforts. The program is a regional partnership that includes dozens of federal and State agencies, local governments, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions. The partners work together through voluntary agreements that are implemented by the Bay Program’s goal teams, workgroups, and committees. . In 2009, President Obama issued Executive Order 13508 for Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration, directing the enhanced federal involvement by over 10 different agencies. In 2014, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement was signed by representatives from each of the watershed’s six states and the Federal Government, containing ten goals aimed at advancing restoration and protection. Data and information related to restoration and pollution prevention efforts are communicated, tracked, and shared via ChesapeakeStat and the Chesapeake Bay Program Data Hub.

How is scientific research funded?

Broadly, a range of agencies and organizations conduct coordinated science activities to support the Chesapeake Bay Program’s goals. Funding comes from numerous federal agencies, State and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and private interests.[1] Currently, there is only a rough estimate of funding that is directed toward science, with is $40-60 million. Like the other systems, science research funding is rarely separated out as a budget line item. Of note, the recently passed Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act will require an annual Federal-State Cross-Cut Budget starting in fall of 2016.[2] The funding reported under this Act was the States contributing about $1.2 billion with the Federal Government providing about $500 million.

Funding information reported related to the Executive Order for FY2016, shows federal agencies provided an estimated $487 million in funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program. For reported years 2011-2016, average annual funding was $473.3 million and totaled $2.8 billion.

  • [1] Chesapeake Bay Accountability Act report to Congress, 2016
  • [2]Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act Implementation (CBARA). Chesapeake Bay Program.

Chesapeake Bay and Watershed Presentation

Presenter: Scott Phillips, USGS Environmental Scientist and Coordinator of the USGS Priority Ecosystems Science Program for the Chesapeake Bay.  Research interests include hydrogeology, modeling, and nutrient loading

Scott Phillips

Science and restoration activities at Chesapeake Bay are focused on restoring fish and wildlife populations while simultaneously trying to provide benefits to the 18 million people who live there. There are almost 3,600 different species of plants and animals. Some of the most followed species are striped bass (with about 90 percent of striped bass in the Atlantic Ocean spawning in the Bay), blue crabs, and migrating waterfowl, since the Bay is part of the Atlantic Flyway.

All of this provides a lot of economic benefit for the mid-Atlantic area, but we've had problems over the past century,” he said. “With the amount of people came into the watershed, we started seeing declines of fish and wildlife species for two main reasons: poor water quality and loss of habitat. That was all caused by the population growth we had in the area, as well as some climate variability and over harvesting.”

Mr. Phillips then presented a graph showing female striped bass population. “Back in the seventies, they had really been decimated by over harvesting,” he said. “So when the Bay Program first started, one of the big decisions made was to put a moratorium on striped bass harvesting. It was very controversial through both Maryland and Virginia, but as you can see from the graph, we had a pretty remarkable recovery of the striped bass populations after that moratorium. In fact, now they're at levels between the thresholds that we try to manage them of our fishing and mineral populations as shown by the two lines on the graph.”

Blue crabs are another important species and one of the delicacies in the area. Mr. Phillips presented a graph showing their population from 1993 to present, noting that the population has been near the lower part of the threshold for much of the record due to overharvesting, poor water quality, and other environmental factors that affect the life cycle.  Harvest limits were established and efforts made to improve the water quality to support fish and shellfish such as the blue crabs.

There are two main issues with water quality: low dissolved oxygen as each summer, there are fish kills due to anoxic conditions in the bay, and poor water clarity which has caused loss of submerged aquatic vegetation. Mr. Phillips noted the submerged aquatic vegetation is important for putting oxygen into the bay, for providing spawning habitat for a lot of the fish and shellfish, and as food for the waterfowl.

An initial part of the Chesapeake Bay Program was to try to improve water quality conditions; however, since the standards were set, they have only been able to achieve about 30 – 40 percent of attainment. “A big focus of the Bay was trying to reduce nutrients and sediment that come into the tidal waters that cause these water quality declines,” he said. “When the Bay Program started, we had some improvement in conditions; most of that was due to point source upgrades as the EPA put a lot of money into reducing nutrients coming from waste water treatment plants.”

Conditions have been more static since about 2000, and due to the lack of improvement, they have been working to address non-point sources of pollution, especially agriculture and urban-suburban runoff. This led the Bay Program to move from a voluntary program to reduce nutrients and sediment to a more regulatory program in 2010 when Total Daily Maximum Loads (TMDLs) were established for the entire watershed. “It's the biggest one in the nation,” Mr. Phillips said. “But while it has led to more focused efforts to reduce nutrients and sediments, it has almost fractured some of the partnerships that we've had in the Bay Program.”

They have also been experiencing increased variability due to climate change. “Big storms in some places will have large amounts of nutrients and sediment washing into the bay causing some of the degradation that we have, especially in the summer months,” he said.

A lot of these issues are driven by the number of people in the watershed, Mr. Phillips acknowledged. “We've doubled the amount of people in the watershed over the past fifty years from about 8 million in 1950 to about 18 million at present and we're expecting that to continue to grow. This is a situation where, even though we're trying to restore the system and in some places conserve other parts of our ecosystem, we're up against continued population growth, so that's why we're trying to bring in more of socioeconomic decision making into the Bay Program.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program was established in 1983 under the Clean Water Act, and because of that, it did have a big water quality focus when it began.  The federal lead agency for the program is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). They also partner closely with the six states in the watershed as well as Washington, DC; local governments, and a large number of academic institutions that help provide the science.

The way we work is really topically based, where we have goal teams for fisheries, habitat, water quality, and land conservation,” he said. “That's where we have a nexus of scientists and resource managers working together to try to say, ‘How are we going to restore or recover those different topic areas?' So a lot of co-production right there. That goes up the food chain, where you have higher level policy managers trying to take that science and recommendations and put it into policy decisions, and then finally, once a year, the governors of those six states and the EPA administrator meet to talk about what has been accomplished and what are some of the directions we need to set out in the future.  Science factors in in two ways: we have an assigned coordination group and an advisory group.”

In the beginning, it was mostly a voluntary partnership worked through a series of agreements, the first in 1983 through 2000; the agreements had a water quality focus on nutrient and sediment reduction. By 2000, the agreements broadened things out to look at fisheries and habitat, as well as water quality.

In the early years of the Obama Administration, President Obama put out Executive Order 13508 – Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration. “This came from Tim Kaine, who at that time was governor of Virginia, and he wanted to get more federal involvement within the Bay watershed,” said Mr. Phillips. “So at first, the executive order did not focus on science at all. We were negotiating what should be in this order and we were able for them to move out from just recovery of habitat, fisheries, and water quality to also consider climate change and the strength in science as part of that executive order. It took some work, but we got it in there, and the administration has been pretty supportive of providing funding to back that executive order up, but not all of those requests from the administration actually make it through Congress.”

About the same time as the Executive Order, the TMDL program was established. Mr. Phillips said this formed a real chasm in the Bay Program, because the states now were being told what to do under a regulatory framework versus voluntary agreements. “We had the executive order come out in 2009 and the TMDL in 2010. It took about four years for us to recover into a voluntary partnership again where we finally signed what we called the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and the states and the federal government agreed to what they were going to work on through 2025.

The agreement has 10 goals and 31 outcomes, which are too many to be able to do effectively, so they are working through a prioritization exercise.

Let me visualize what this looks like for you,” Mr. Phillips said. “The big overall goal is to restore and sustain populations of fish and wildlife for the benefit of the people and the watershed and beyond, through bringing back their conditions, water quality, and habitat, and while also conserving the lands they depend on through different management interventions,” he said. “These can be practices and policies, while trying to take into concern what the future conditions could be, both from population growth and associated consumption and land change, as well as climate change variability.”

Each of the 10 goals has an outcome that is measurable. “We went through a long process with the Office of Management and Budget to say, ‘We will restore crabs, oysters, and rock fish to these target levels by 2025,‘” he said.  “All these outcomes have a decade target that we need to address. One big issue here is trying to make sure groups aren't focused just on their outcomes; we have an interconnection between these outcomes, so we have more of an ecosystems approach. That's one of our big challenges.”

Federal funding is about $500 million; over time it’s waned, but since the Executive Order, funding has increased and has sustained well over time. The majority of that funding goes for water quality improvements; much less of the funding goes towards fisheries, management, or habitat restoration, which is mostly supported by NOAA and the Department of Interior at the federal level. The states put in a similar amount of money – about $600 million dollars, mostly focused on water quality restoration.

This is one of our big challenges,” Mr. Phillips said. “We have an unbalanced approach for the 10 goals we're trying to meet.  I would say 80 percent of the effort is just for water quality. Of that, I would say 5 percent goes maybe goes for science if we're lucky.”

Mr. Phillips then turned to how science is organized in the program. “We have a very closely linked science decision framework where we work with the resource managers on a daily basis on decision making,” he said. “Where science informs is in setting up the ten goals and the factors influencing those goals to help inform what the management approach is to be. Then we have monitoring in place to assess, ‘Are we getting the environmental benefits we had hoped for?' Then, we synthesize information so resource managers can make adjustments to their strategies, or we can make adjustments to our science.”

There are two main science groups: an advisory group and a science provider group. The advisors are the Scientific and Technical Advisor Committee (STAC), which is comprised of 38 different representatives, mostly from academic institutions who review and provide guidance. “They are more forward-looking,” he said. “They say, ‘ten years from now, you need to be worried about climate change, because if you look at projected increases of relative sea level rise, Chesapeake Bay has the highest increase of the whole east coast.'

On the other hand, the Scientific, Technical Assessment and Reporting (STAR) team is where they try to coordinate the science for the topical areas. This group is comprised of the different agencies and academic institutions, and they support the management needs of the goal teams.

Mr. Phillips then presented an organizational chart for the science enterprise. At the top are the goal teams which focus on fisheries, habitat, water quality, healthy watershed, stewardship, and leadership. Then there is the STAC and the STAR team who tries to coordinate the science from all of the providers which include the Bay Program office, the GIS team, the federal partners, state agencies, local governments, academic, and NGOs.

Mr. Phillips said that they work directly to prioritize the science needs of the goal teams. “We have 29 outcomes and we can't meet them all, so we usually go through a bi-annual prioritization process that asks, ‘What do you need the most for monitoring or modeling, or other aspects of your science?'” he said. “Then we will look for the providers. Usually these different folks have a certain area of expertise, and they are lined up to try to work with these teams. For instance, there's an oyster work group and a crab work group with NOAA members on those, and there are academic institutions helping to support those.”

With a lot of different people with different areas of expertise, one way they work is directly under work groups with the teams. “But we don't want them stove-piped. This is where the science coordination comes in where we have a bigger group of functions that we're trying to carry out.”

Major functions include monitoring – integrated monitoring, data integrity, status and trends which are the indicators for the 29 outcomes; ecosystem change; modeling, which is mostly water quality based; potential impacts of climate change, information management and GIS, and science synthesis to inform decision making. STAR has established workgroups for these functions which meet monthly and have a full-time coordinator to help them carry out their duties.

There are federal agencies (the USGS, EPA, NOAA, FWS), state agencies, and more than a dozen universities that focused and coordinated through the Chesapeake research consortium as well as STAC and different NGO's. “The way they interact with the resource managers is either through these topical work groups or through STAR,” he said.

Mr. Phillips said there’s no magical approach to funding. “We use any way we can think of – multiple approaches,” he said. “A lot of times the federal and state folks bring their own resources. We have certain expertise within USGS, so we have our own science plan. Of those thirty outcomes, there's about ten of them we think we can help with. We work within our internal programs and line those up, so we have about $11 million dollars to put towards the effort. NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife have similar approaches.”

In order to guard against redundancy, there is a federal coordination group that ensures the work plans are aligned.  “At the beginning when we had this executive order, there were a lot of turf battles,” he said. “We had to really get beyond that and take what we call an abundance mentality of saying, ‘Look, guys, these are complicated issues. There's something in here for everybody if you get beyond your turf war and start working together.' That took a couple years for that evolution to occur.”

EPA is the lead federal agency that provides resources that can go out through inter-agency agreements, and they’ve set up RFPs for particular topics that are open for academic institutions and consultants to put forward proposals for. The academic institutions are somewhat coordinated through the Chesapeake Resource Consortium, but most of it is individual researchers who already have some funding from their university for a particular topic, but they will try to look for grants from other entities to try to help with that work.

I think some of the biggest challenges here are that we have more needs than we have resources for, so we have to go through this prioritization process,” Mr. Phillips said. “Trying to align what the different groups are doing is very difficult, and we'll have to move on from some of those challenges.

Mr. Phillips then gave an example of how some groups are working with water quality monitoring. “We needed to set up monitoring throughout the bay watershed to look at how these nutrient-sediment practices are working,” he said. “What we found was that all the states had different ways to do that. We took two years and we worked with all the partners, we said, ‘What are we want to try to do?' We said, ‘we want to try and look at trends which will take ten-year investment, and we also need to look at compatible data.' We examined the data, essentially came up with a report of how to approach it and signed an MOU to move forward together on it. Now there are monitoring stations, about a hundred and twenty of them across the watershed; not all of those have the ten years of data we need yet, but they will finally.”

The program costs about $6 million dollars. It provides information on the watershed that show where the highest yields in red and the lowest in blue, so people can target where they put practices in. The data is accessible through a website. They can also look at trends. “This is what's used to help inform some of the TMDL practices,” he said.

Mr. Phillips turned to his final topic, tools and communication. They work with three major tools: models, monitoring, and mapping. Most of the tools are focused on water quality; they lack a lot of the ecosystem tools.

In terms of mapping, they are looking at how outcomes are interrelated rather than looking specifically at each of the outcomes. “Where are the healthy watersheds in the sixty-four thousand square mile area that can support brook trout, that have adequate stream health and that we can put land conservation practices to work in. We try to do mapping exercises to say, ‘In these darker areas, that's where all those coalesce, so this is where we should focus our efforts to benefit multiple outcomes by aligning partner activities,’” he said.

Each of the 29 outcomes has an indicator and they try to look at the influencing factor that might affect achieving that outcome. “For the 29 outcomes, maybe half of those have an indicator, so we're really incomplete, given all the monitoring we have to do. This is a big challenge, trying to get the monitoring to set up these different indicators.”

In terms of communication, there are multiple audiences that range from policy makers to implementers to the interested public. Mr. Phillips acknowledged that trying to translate to different levels of understanding can be really challenging. “When we try to synthesize, we take the mantra of ‘Less is more,'” he said. “The resource managers trying to make decisions can't use all the data and science we put out, so we need to be able to work the scientists to get their findings, interpretations, and sound scientific footing, but that needs to be refined when you start to talk about the implications for decision makers. Then you need to refine and distill it more when you're giving them policy options.

Just to summarize, we really depend on the science decision interface,” he said. “Groups of both providers and advisors try to emphasize long term investments and modeling and monitoring, and then use that to evaluate and adapt in this decision framework. This takes a lot of perseverance and passion.”

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Photo credit: By Acroterion – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7181674

Photo credit: By David Broad, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54200719

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