President Obama's Draft Strategy for Chesapeake Bay Focused on Federal Action and Accountability

Date: November 18, 2009

On May 12, 2009, President Obama issued Executive Order 13508, aimed at protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. It is the first-ever presidential directive on the Chesapeake Bay and President Obama's first Executive Order targeting the environment. The Executive Order refers to the Bay as a national treasure and directs the federal government to exercise greater leadership in efforts to address the environmental problems facing the Bay. The stated purpose of the initiative is "to protect and restore the health, heritage, and social and economic value of the nation's largest ecosystem and the natural sustainability of its watershed." Notably, the Order acknowledges that while the federal government should assume a strong leadership role in the protection and restoration of the Bay, success hinges upon a collaborative effort involving state and local governments, the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and the region's residents.

In order to adequately address the Chesapeake Bay's challenges, Executive Order 13508 establishes a Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay (FLC), chaired by the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The FLC includes senior representatives from the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior and Transportation. The Executive Order has charged these agencies with developing strategies to address key challenges in the Bay in seven areas:

1. Reducing pollution and meeting water quality goals
2. Targeting conservation practices
3. Strengthening storm water management at Federal facilities
4. Adapting to impacts of changing climate
5. Conserving landscapes
6. Strengthening science for decision making
7. Conducting habitat and research activities to improve outcomes for living resources

The draft reports containing the initial recommendations for developing strategies were completed in September 2009 and submitted to the FLC in order to create a single, integrated strategy defining actions necessary to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay. In crafting their recommendations, representatives from the FLC worked extensively with the six Chesapeake Bay watershed states (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The federal agencies also reached out to the private sector. Throughout the process of crafting an integrated plan, the federal government has striven to promote transparency in its efforts and encourage public engagement.

On November 9, 2009, the FLC formally released its comprehensive draft strategy for public review and comment. The public comment period is scheduled to close on January 8, 2010. Although the majority of the goals set forth in the November 9th strategy are at this point relatively vague, it is anticipated that the draft strategy will evolve significantly through public comments, state consultations, and agency revisions before the final strategy is published in May 2010.

In its current form, the draft strategy contains a comprehensive collection of federal initiatives designed to address the challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. Collectively, the initiatives support three major actions:

1. Restore clean water
2. Conserve treasured places and restore habitats, fish, and wildlife
3. Adapt to the impacts of climate change

As set forth in the draft strategy, these actions are to be achieved through three primary methods:

1. Empower local efforts
2. Decision-making through science
3. New era of federal leadership

Restore Clean Water
The draft strategy provides that the EPA will establish a framework for performance and accountability to guide federal and state pollution control programs and also establish regulations to reduce pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and urban and suburban runoff. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will target voluntary conservation incentives at high priority areas. In addition, a new emphasis is being placed on improving stormwater management on federal land and reducing polluted runoff from transportation infrastructure.

Conserve Treasured Places and Restore Habitats, Fish, and Wildlife
The draft strategy sets forth a variety of initiatives aimed at conserving natural places, animal habitats, and fish and wildlife. As an example, the Department of the Interior, in collaboration with other agencies, will craft a Chesapeake Treasured Landscapes Initiative to protect the environmental, historic, cultural, and recreational value of the region's forests, wetlands, river corridors, and open spaces. In addition, the federal government will focus funding to support state and local efforts to conserve landscapes and provide public access through purchases of land and establishment of conservation easements. Further, the Department of the Interior will look for opportunities to expand the National Park System, National Wildlife Refuge System, National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and National Historic Trails System.

Adapt to the Impacts of Climate Change
Scientists project that climate change will have a multitude of impacts on the Bay and its watershed in the decades ahead, including rising sea levels, warmer water and air temperatures, and stronger storms. As most of the infrastructure in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is tightly interwoven, the draft strategy stresses that regional climate adaptation planning to protect, adapt, and upgrade the region's infrastructure is critical. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey are leading the development of some of the major federal initiatives for adapting to climate change in the Bay, although the details of these initiatives have yet to be fully articulated.

Empower Local Efforts
The draft strategy recognizes the vested interest that local governments, watershed organizations and residents have in the restoration of the Bay. As a result, a variety of the initiatives set forth in the draft strategy emphasize the need to empower local efforts in protecting and restoring the Chesapeake. Federal agencies, under the draft strategy, are directed to expand technical assistance and resources, educate the public on the human impact to the Bay, and support development of innovative technologies and economic markets for ecosystem services. The EPA is slotted to launch a new grant program for stream restoration and for assisting local governments in their efforts to reduce water pollution. In addition, the EPA, the USDA, and the U.S. Department of Transportation will expand public private partnerships and focus federal funding on the development of innovative technologies for a variety of environmental services including reducing water pollution, improving conservation practices and increasing revenue for farmland.

In light of the direct impact that land use has on the environment, federal agencies are directed to promote sustainable development and smart growth through assistance and tools to local governments. The U.S. Department of Transportation, the EPA, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development will convene a series of forums and partner with local governments to develop integrated planning for transportation, land use, housing, and water infrastructure in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive manner.

Decision-Making through Science
There can be little doubt that science is the underpinning of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort. Striving to ensure that the Chesapeake Bay watershed population is informed of the scientific basis and results of actions and initiatives, the draft strategy, through the Chesapeake Bay Program, will launch ChesapeakeStat, a web-based system that provides information about partner restoration activities, funding levels and progress toward goals. As set forth in the draft strategy, ChesapeakeStat will be made available to the public in order to keep it informed of the scientific basis behind actions and initiatives and as a means to encourage broad participation in restoring the Bay. It will provide a public system for tracking restoration activities, spending, and progress.

Federal Leadership
In his Executive Order, President Obama directed the federal government to take a stronger leadership role in protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay. The draft strategy provides that the federal government will lead a collaborative process with the watershed states and the District of Columbia to create a comprehensive, coordinated strategy for the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. The FLC is currently evaluating the most effective and efficient process for collaborating with the states in developing a final strategy. The draft strategy proposes that an interagency process, which includes the states, be established to develop clear environmental goals for restoring the Bay, including program performance indicators, target dates and interim milestones.

The draft strategy directs that federal agencies establish two-year milestones for implementing protection and restoration measures related to all aspects of watershed health and set goals to have practices in place no later than 2025. The watershed states and the District of Columbia have committed to meeting these two-year milestones, which will be established in May 2011.

Both the Executive Order and the draft strategy recognize the monumental task of preserving and restoring the Chesapeake Bay and stress that the key to success is seamless, coordinated federal-state-local action. There is no question that this effort will require tremendous dedication, patience, persistence and communication amongst the federal, state, and local agencies, as well as the public. While critics of the draft strategy assert that, in its current form, the plan lacks specific details in its initiatives and therefore complicates the public's ability to offer comments, the message is clear: the federal government is making a renewed commitment to restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next several months, as the draft strategy evolves and as the initiatives set forth therein come into focus, it will be critical to monitor the evolution in order to gauge the potential impact that businesses and individuals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed region will experience.