Chesapeake Bay – the United States’ largest estuary – spanning many states, naturally faces multiple ecological and jurisdictional challenges. Though some challenges remain, collaborative restoration efforts between the state, federal and local governments, and other stakeholders including historically underrepresented communities, bring positive results, writes Shannon Kazia Norbert.
With sandy beaches and mud flats lining miles of its shoreline, and with its marshes, creeks and forests sheltering countless flora and fauna, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is an ecological marvel. It is the United States’ largest estuary and spans the states of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Spreading over more than 1,66,000 km2, the bay is home to over 3,600 species of plants and animals, and over 18 million people.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed’s water quality has declined over the decades due to excessive nutrients and sediments entering its waters from human activities including agriculture and wastewater discharge. The State of the Bay report of 2022, published by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – an independent conservation organisation – assigned the bay a health score of 32, or D+, indicating the high amount of pollutants entering it. In 2020, industrial sources released more than 3 million pounds of toxic chemicals into waterways that drain into the Chesapeake Bay, an amount similar to the previous years.
The bay’s shallow basin and large watershed catchment area make it more susceptible to pollution. Given that the watershed is expansive, the extent of pollution increases the need for collaborative environmental stewardship from all the actors including the federal, state and local governments, non-governmental organisations and local stakeholders.
There have been efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, individual states, non-governmental organisations, interstate commissions and local communities – and the ongoing multi-stakeholder Chesapeake Bay Program – to manage the overall health of the watershed.
Towards restoring Chesapeake Bay
The Chesapeake Bay Program is a voluntary regional partnership created to attain the objectives of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and lead restoration and stewardship within the watershed. Originally signed in 1983 to restore and protect the bay, there have been several drafts and amendments to the agreement over the years, including a 2020 amendment to the 2014 draft.
The signatories of the agreement are: Chesapeake Bay Commission – a tri-state commission created in 1980 to restore the watershed, State of Delaware, District of Columbia, State of Maryland, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, State of New York, Commonwealth of Virginia, State of West Virginia, and the federal government of the United States of America.
The agreement outlines the goals and outcomes related to 10 areas, namely, sustainable fisheries, vital habitats, water quality, toxic contaminants, healthy watersheds, stewardship, land conservation, public access, environmental literacy and climate resiliency.
Spearheading collaboration, inclusion
The Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) is government-funded and known for its role in improving the water quality of the bay through regional planning, tracking initiatives such as Watershed Implementation Plans, and routine monitoring.
However, to attain future water quality goals for 2025, CBP increased its engagement with local stakeholders, cultivating a two-way communication. Towards this, the Chesapeake Bay Program also drew up a governance and management framework in December 2022. Committees on citizens’ advisory, local government advisory, and science and technical advisory were formed and specific responsibilities were assigned. Six implementation teams – with a workgroup under each – were formed to ensure progress in areas such as sustainable fisheries and restoring vital habitats, among others.
Within CBP, the Chesapeake Bay Commission serves as the policy coordination and legislative body to liaison with U.S. federal government agencies. The commission assists state and federal legislatures in evaluating watershed concerns, ensures intergovernmental cooperation and coordination, and provides recommendations in restoring the bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Program is committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. The diversity workgroup identifies stakeholders who were earlier not included in the decision-making process of the restoration work, and includes them to ensure a greater representation of the diversity of the watershed population. The workgroup engages in creating long-term relationships from historically underrepresented communities in order to include their perspectives in the restoration of the bay.
Harnessing the power of participation
Participatory approaches to watershed management offer numerous benefits including increased collaboration, capacity building and knowledge exchange between local stakeholders and government agencies. Additionally, meaningful engagement with these stakeholder networks provides alternative decision-making methods and strategies for watershed stewardship.
This participatory approach provides a comprehensive understanding of watershed issues and allows the informal groups to discuss, and generate new ideas and solutions through informal network collaboration and social learning. This informal aspect allows for discussions without official support when potential unsupportive government administrations may hinder official dialogues.
The advisory committees receive information from the local stakeholder network, including concerns, perspectives and possible solutions. This information is applied to relevant research and projects in the form of direct public engagement sessions, and then passed onto the management. There is a continuous sharing of information between the local stakeholders and the advisory committees.
While there is a constant exchange of information, it must be noted that the quantity of information does not necessarily mean that this participatory approach is effective, as the quality, organisation and applicability of the information is also important.
Multi-stakeholder involvement in watershed management poses additional challenges, including the large surface area of the watershed, the diverse range of stakeholders and perspectives, varying political jurisdictions and ecological variations within the region.
Multi-jurisdictional watershed management requires appropriate funding so that all the stakeholders are meaningfully engaged and their inputs are put to effective use. In areas like the Chesapeake Bay, it also relies on multiple aspects including stakeholder networks, besides water laws and policies.
One challenge that the Chesapeake Bay Program faces is the complex non-governmental stakeholder network, and how it exchanges knowledge with local, state, and federal agencies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has attempted to improve this network through the Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative, a multi-state initiative created in 2015.
The Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative (CMC) collects data from volunteer environmental monitoring groups and integrates the same with government datasets, to help with policymaking. The CMC networks with local communities and non-governmental stakeholders, as well as local, state and federal government agencies.
The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Stakeholders’ Advisory Committee represents the residents and stakeholders of the watershed and advises the Program on community engagement for the restoration of the bay. The committee is composed of local agricultural, conservation, environmental and business stakeholders that collaborate amongst each other to advocate for local engagement and accountability in the process of restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Climate change compounds challenges
Climate change is impacting the Chesapeake Bay through increased severe weather, higher temperatures and rising sea levels. The increase in intense storms in the region intensifies soil erosion and polluted stormwater runoff, which allows for more sediment and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus to enter the bay. In turn, these nutrients augment the number of algal blooms and oxygen-depleted zones in the water.
With climate change exacerbating the ecological decline of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, further citizen engagement, education for behaviour change and other participatory approaches to watershed management will be needed to improve the ecological health of the watershed.
These participatory approaches that engage the public can build adaptive capacity for climate change impacts. Additionally, participatory programs such as local community monitoring networks, assessments and management strategies can integrate individual state’s water quality initiatives through partnerships with stakeholders, state and local agencies to better understand water quality trends and causes. This heightens the integration of modelling data between states and communities and therefore can strengthen decision-making.
Towards better watershed management
Successful participatory approaches necessitate cooperation, coordination and clearly defined roles among stakeholders. Participatory stewardship practices lead to increased collaboration between stakeholders and government agencies. Due to increased collaboration, there is an increased potential to create comprehensive management plans for the watershed.
The collaborative effort of the Chesapeake Bay Program allows the region to resolve interstate conflicts. For instance, the program uses an ecosystem-focused approach to restoration, where the signatories and partners discuss and agree to a desired outcome, and each individually works to achieve this outcome through their own methods.
However, stakeholders in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are united through their purpose of providing stewardship to the ecosystem and managing resources effectively within the area that they live. This underlying motivation as well as local knowledge of the watershed increases the effective stewardship of the watershed.
This participatory stewardship model and information management lead to better understanding of local perspectives and hence more informed decision-making. This in turn leads to developing better water laws and policies.
For instance, the utilisation of citizen science for the collection of water quality data on a small scale throughout the watershed provides better understanding of the health of the Chesapeake Bay. This thereby improves the policy decision-making process. Due to the amending of the Watershed Agreement, the program has increased its integration of citizen science and stakeholder participation and discussion to improve its studies and recommendations in the future.
When collaboration bring results
The participatory processes in the Chesapeake Bay have the potential to define ecological problems more effectively and efficiently.
While the State of the Bay report of 2022 is an indicator of the intense efforts needed to restore the bay, it also shows positive indicators of the collaborative work. For instance, an annual survey showed a slight improvement in underwater grass abundance. After a drastic decline in 2020, the population of rock fish or striped bass is slowly increasing. Oysters’ population too has registered an increase.
Another example of the results of participatory actions for watershed management includes the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Chesapeake behaviour change social science tool that helps local partnerships of stakeholders forecast future engagement and social-environmental behaviours.
This helps in restoring the watershed in addition to promoting the increase in environmentally aware actions on the local level. This tool also shares opportunities to become involved in the environmental challenges within the watershed, which further promotes collaboration amongst stakeholders and environmental stewardship behaviours.