Policy commentary

Fixing Chesapeake Bay: Getting the Strategy Right

Dec 27, 2010 | Andrew Manale

This commentary, which originally ran in January 2010 and remains timely, calls for a reconsideration of existing approaches to managing the Chesapeake Bay. Restoring degraded sites, regulating smokestacks, and encouraging voluntary efforts on diffuse agricultural sources of pollution have not been sufficient to restore the health of the Bay. Instead, Andrew Manale argues that a landscape-level plan to restore ecosystem functions is needed. When ecosystem services are valued, landowners will have appropriate incentives to manage the watershed for conservation benefits.

The Chesapeake Bay is in trouble, its health stagnant if not declining. Early this year, a White House executive order called for a strategy for restoring the Bay. The challenge for the federal and state entities responsible for resource management is that the Bay is a complex, dynamic ecosystem but the current approach generally reflects the state of environmental science when the statutory authorities were created.

Progress on reducing the impacts of agriculture—the major contributor of pollution to Chesapeake Bay waters—has depended largely on voluntary government conservation programs to change how the land is managed. The current strategy aims at restoring agricultural acres to wetlands, encouraging less-intensive land uses, and implementing farm-specific plans for managing animal waste. (One EPA regulation, newly issued under the CWA, pertains only to land under the control of operations that confine large numbers of animals.)

Reducing pollution and restoring wetlands, however, do not necessarily translate into a healthy Bay. Health is a relative term and must be defined in terms of what is achievable with available technology and resources. Moreover, the health of the Bay’s waters is intertwined with the health of the surrounding land. The functioning of the water resource must be considered within the framework of a system, with each component playing an important role in the health of the whole. Temporary water storage for flood and drought mitigation is one critical ecological function; carbon and nutrient recycling is another. How the watershed’s agricultural and forested lands are managed largely determines the extent of these functions and resulting services.

Restoring lands to a semblance of their pre-agricultural state may not be economically or politically feasible. The alternative is to manage them in ways that mimic the functions of undeveloped land by restoring impaired or lost ecological services. In this alternative approach, land owners and managers are encouraged to adopt landscape-scale systems that produce both agricultural goods and ecosystem services with societal value.People who realize their dependence on these ecosystem services should be willing to help manage the landscape for conservation benefits—in the form of clean water, wildlife habitat, and a healthier Bay—out of self-interest.

Four Steps to Protecting the Chesapeake

1. Define an ecosystem services approach.

Instead of focusing on efforts to reduce the levels of individual pollutants in a single medium (minimizing a negative externality), the new strategy should encourage restoration of the land’s ecological functions (maximizing a positive externality and environmental amenity).

A watershed managed for ecosystem services recycles or destroys excess agricultural inputs, such as reactive nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), which would otherwise enter the water. All inputs of N and P into the watershed are accounted for, including the amounts in feed grain imported into the region and the amounts released from organic complexes when soils are improperly tilled or drained. Water flows that are critical to nutrient recycling are restored. Even though converted to agriculture, the managed soils of converted wetlands may still provide some ecological functions of pristine wetlands.

Water models tell us how much the loadings of N and P into Bay waters must be reduced. What we now need to know is how much N and P can be made harmless through denitrification, biological immobilization, or soil formation, or how much must be shipped out of the watershed.

2. Assign responsibility.

Responsibility for managing inputs of N and P and disposal of agricultural and livestock waste now falls to growers who produce under contract to large processors. Farm-specific nutrient management plans require enforcement and must be updated as production contracts change and more animals are grown.

A better system makes growers liable for proper waste disposal for the maximum number of animals that can be responsibly managed on their land. The processors are responsible for any animal waste transferred offsite. Liability for the waste can be transferred to a third party with demonstrated ability to dispose of it in an environmentally sound manner or approved nutrient management plan.

An alternative, nonregulatory approach is to define property rights so that there is nothing “external” to a transaction. Property rights are redefined such that contract growers and processors share responsibility for resource management. In most communities, people who own dogs are assumed to own what the dogs “produce” and required to clean it from the sidewalks. Why not apply that principle to big food processors that contract with small landowners to raise chickens and hogs?

3. Implement adaptive management.

Adaptive management follows from the premise that the outcome of environmental management is rarely predictable, especially for a system as complex and dynamic as the Chesapeake Bay watershed. One approaches management as an experiment, carefully monitoring the outcomes, which in turn inform the management process and the models on which it is based. The emphasis is on learning and adapting.

Monitoring the chemical and biological measures of system health is necessary to establish baseline conditions against which conditions can be compared over time. Citizen oversight can increase monitoring while reducing its cost. It has been successfully applied in various watersheds throughout the United States, including in areas of the Bay. The key to its success is oversight by a scientific agency, training, and clear protocols. A cost-effective government investment would be in training coordinators and developing guidelines that enable effective citizen monitoring.

4. Assess land for its value in providing ecosystem services.

The market currently assesses agricultural land on the basis of its potential to produce crops and livestock. It does not establish a price for the land’s ecosystem goods and services.

The tools for assessing ecosystem attributes exist but need to be refined. Government or a trade association could develop standards for assessments and certify the assessors. Buyers could then know the value of investing in an ecosystem good or service from the land. With a little experience, assessors of ecosystem services, just like real estate assessors, could identify the ecological value of the land.

Time for a New Policy Model

Scientists have done considerable work documenting the decline of the Bay but little research on what measures of health are achievable under reasonable economic and regulatory policy scenarios. Such studies would begin with the acknowledgment that full restoration may not be possible in the foreseeable future, if ever.

We have spent billions of federal and state dollars to protect the Chesapeake, and still the Bay is in trouble. The science is never good enough; the regulatory structure is never strong enough; there is never enough public money to do what needs to be done. It is time to consider a different approach. Focusing on how landowners and managers can contribute to the solution of problems opens new opportunities for entrepreneurs and even generates tax revenue for local communities. An ecosystem services approach could create new, alternative revenue for owners and users of the land while it protects the nation’s largest estuary.

Andrew Manale is an expert in agricultural and natural resource policy. He is currently employed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., and works on agricultural and natural resource issues. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the federal government.

Further Readings:

2007 Federal Farm Bill: Concepts for Conservation Reform in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Prepared by the states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Delaware; the District of Columbia and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. November 2005.

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and EcoCheck (NOAA-UMCES Partnership). 2008. Chesapeake EcoCheck Report Card. Note: For 2008, as for 2007, the overall Bay “grade” was a C, with large portions marked D and even an F.

Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay. 2009. Executive Order 13508 Draft Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Federal Register 74(215): 57675-57676, November 9.

Obama, Barack. 2009. Executive Order 13508: Chesapeake Protection and Restoration. May 12.