Consensus Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Recovery of the Chesapeake Bay from the ecosystem disruption caused by excess nutrient and sediment inputs, primarily from agriculture, urban runoff, wastewater, and air pollution, will require profound changes in the management of resources in the Bay watershed. In recent years, the Chesapeake Bay Program has enhanced accountability of its partner states, for example by establishing two-year milestones for progress. However, numerous challenges affect the consistency and accuracy of the tracking and accounting of nutrient reduction practices. Opportunities also exist to improve support for applications of adaptive management. Because public support is vital to sustaining the program, it is important to help the public understand lag times and uncertainties associated with water quality improvements and to develop program strategies to better quantify them.

Key Messages

  • Accurate tracking and accounting of the use of best management practices—efforts farmers, developers, local governments, and others make to reduce nutrient and sediment inputs to the Chesapeake Bay—is of paramount importance, because the Chesapeake Bay Program relies on these data to estimate current and future nutrient and sediment loads to the bay.
  • Currently, tracking and accounting of the use of best management practices is not consistent across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Additionally, given that some best management practices are not tracked in all jurisdictions, the current accounting cannot be viewed on the whole as accurate. Independent auditing of the tracking and accounting at state and local levels would be necessary to ensure the reliability and accuracy of the data reported.
  • The two-year milestone system represents an improvement upon past strategies because it requires Bay jurisdictions to meet short-term implementation goals, with frequent assessments of the pace of progress. However, the milestone strategy does not guarantee that implementation goals will be met, and consequences of failing to reach the two-year milestone goals are not clear.
  • The jurisdictions participating in the Chesapeake Bay Program reported mixed progress on their first milestone goals. However, the committee was largely unable to assess the likelihood that the Bay jurisdictions will meet their ultimate nutrient load reduction goals with the data provided. Nearly all jurisdictions have insufficient data to evaluate implementation progress relative to their nutrient reduction goals.
  • Electronic reporting systems are likely to improve the quality of reporting and ease the jurisdictions' tracking and accounting burden, but may currently be delaying assessments of implementation progress. Because implementation data are submitted electronically to a region-wide system, several jurisdictions noted that their own data are then less accessible for their assessments of state-level progress. Some Bay jurisdictions have mechanisms in place to compile progress updates as needed, but others have to wait approximately nine months after the end of the reporting period for a summary of best management practice implementation from the Chesapeake Bay Program.
  • The committee did not find any evidence of formal adaptive management efforts for nutrient and sediment reduction. Instead, the current two-year milestone strategy is best characterized as a trial and error process of adaptation in which learning is serendipitous, rather than an explicit objective. Successful application of adaptive management requires careful assessment of uncertainties relevant to decision making, but the partners have not fully analyzed uncertainties inherent in nutrient and sediment reduction efforts.
  • Without sufficient flexibility of the regulatory and organizational structure within which Chesapeake Bay Program nutrient and sediment reduction efforts are undertaken, adaptive management may be problematic. Truly embracing adaptive management requires recognition that factors such as the total maximum daily loads, load allocations, or even water quality standards may need to be modified based on what is learned through the management tests.
  • To achieve all needed nutrient and sediment reduction practices by the target date of 2025, jurisdictions will not only have to make significant reductions in current inputs to the Bay, but also make additional efforts to limit impacts of growth and development over the next 15 years. In addition, future climate change may impact the response of the Bay to reduced loads.
  • To help reach long-term load reduction goals, the committee identified strategies with unrealized potential, in order to encourage further consideration and exploration of these strategies by Chesapeake Bay Program partners and stakeholders. Examples of these potential strategies include improved animal waste management, enhanced individual responsibility for inhabitants of the Bay area, and additional air pollution controls.
  • Helping the public understand lag times and uncertainties associated with water quality improvements, and developing program strategies to quantify them, are vital to sustaining public interest in the program, particularly if near-term Bay response does not meet expectations.
  • Establishing a Chesapeake Bay modeling laboratory would ensure the Chesapeake Bay Program has access to a suite of state-of-the-art models that could be used to build credibility with the scientific, engineering, and management communities.