Chesapeake Recovery Hampered by Sparse Data, Academy Finds

For decades, the Chesapeake Bay—the largest estuary in the United States—has suffered from excess nutrients and sediments that pour into its waters. In 2009, six states and the District of Columbia decided to accelerate their efforts to clean up the bay by setting 2-year goals. That approach has been validated in a review of these goals released today by the National Research Council (NRC), but the panel warns that a lack of data makes it hard to know the efficacy of recovery actions.

"In general they're making progress, but at this point, early in the game, we're not able to draw definitive conclusions about how they're doing," says water policy expert Kenneth Reckhow of RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, who chaired the panel.

The panel found that states and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have a good understanding of the pollution that comes from "point sources" such as sewage treatment plants. But much less is known about diffuse nutrient pollution that enters the bay after running off of farms, for example. The amount and quality of data about pollution varies widely by jurisdiction, as does the knowledge about how well various types of best management practices are working. The committee had no way to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of these practices, or of the estimates of reductions in the amount of sediment and nutrients reaching the bay. "Current accounting cannot be viewed, on the whole, as accurate," the panel concluded.

This situation makes it difficult to gauge the progress toward the first 2-year goal, according to a summary of the NRC report:

The jurisdictions participating in the Chesapeake Bay Program [a collaboration between EPA, six states, and Washington, D.C.] reported mixed progress toward 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 loads. Without timely updates and synthesis of progress, most jurisdictions lack the information necessary to make the mid-course corrections that are pivotal to the milestone strategy.

The panel also found shortcomings in the overall ability of regional governments and EPA to make these mid-course corrections, a process called adaptive management: "Neither the EPA nor the Bay jurisdictions exhibit a clear understanding of adaptive management and how it might be applied in pursuit of water quality goals." This is due in part to a lack of funding for large-scale experiments and monitoring, as well as regulatory restraints faced by EPA, the panel notes.