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Chesapeake Bay Program’s Two-Year Milestones Improve Upon Past Strategies, But Accounting Of Progress Remains A Challenge

May 4, 2011

The Chesapeake Bay Program is a cooperative partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and jurisdictions in the bay watershed to oversee the restoration of the bay, with a major focus on controlling the extent of pollutants — such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment — entering it.  A new report from the National Research Council assesses the framework used by these partners for tracking pollution control practices and their two-year milestone strategy, which complements longer-term efforts to comply with the total maximum daily load of pollutants that the EPA allows in the Chesapeake Bay.  According to the report, the milestone strategy improves upon past strategies by committing states to tangible, near-term goals, but consequences for not attaining the goals remain unclear.

The report says that nearly all states have insufficient information to evaluate their progress in reducing nutrient pollution, limiting their capacity to make midcourse corrections.  Additionally, tracking and accounting issues lead to an incomplete and possibly inaccurate picture of the bay jurisdictions’ overall progress in meeting program goals.  For example, jurisdictions face challenges tracking practices that are not cost-shared and verifying that practices are correctly implemented and maintained.

Another main concern of the report’s authoring committee is the possibility of overly optimistic expectations among the public.  While science and policy communities generally recognize the inherent uncertainties in modeling water quality, the general public “will almost certainly be frustrated” if they expect visible, tangible evidence of local and bay water quality improvements in short order.  Legacy effects of nutrient pollution already in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will significantly delay results from the program’s efforts.  “Sustaining public and political support for the program will require clear communication of these uncertainties and lag times and program strategies to better quantify them,” the report states.

The report highlights approaches for improving the tracking and accounting of pollution control practices, including creating a consolidated regional best management practices program and increasing use of intensive small-watershed monitoring.  The committee also concluded that establishing a Chesapeake Bay modeling laboratory would likely build credibility with the scientific, engineering, and management communities and improve the integration of modeling and monitoring.

In addition, the report identifies potential strategies that could be used to meet the Chesapeake Bay Program’s long-term goals.  The strategies, meant to encourage further discussion, include improving manure management in agriculture, curbing residential fertilizer use, and exploring additional air pollution controls.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.  Committee members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies’ conflict-of-interest standards.  The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org/studycommitteprocess.pdf.  A committee roster follows.

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