Chesapeake Bay:

Restoration Effort Needs Common Federal and State Goals and Assessment Approach

GAO-11-802: Published: Sep 15, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 15, 2011.

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The Chesapeake Bay, with its watershed in parts of six states and the District of Columbia (watershed states), is an important economic and natural resource that has been in decline. Over decades, federal agencies and watershed states have entered into several agreements to restore the bay, but its health remains impaired. In May 2009, Executive Order 13508 established a Federal Leadership Committee, led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and directed the committee to issue a strategy by May 2010 to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay (the Strategy). GAO was directed by the explanatory statement of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, to conduct performance assessments of progress made on bay restoration, and this first assessment examines (1) the extent to which the Strategy includes measurable goals for restoring the bay that are shared by stakeholders and actions to attain these goals; (2) the key factors, if any, federal and state officials identified that may reduce the likelihood of achieving Strategy goals and actions; and (3) agency plans for assessing progress made in implementing the Strategy and restoring bay health. GAO reviewed the Strategy, surveyed federal officials, and interviewed watershed state officials and subject matter experts.

The Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed includes 4 broad goals, 12 specific measurable goals with deadlines, and 116 actions to restore the bay by 2025. To achieve the broad and measurable goals, federal agencies, often in collaboration with the watershed states and other entities, are responsible for accomplishing the actions. However, not all stakeholders are working toward achieving the Strategy goals. The watershed states are critical partners in the effort to restore the bay, but state officials told GAO that they are not working toward the Strategy goals, in part because they view the Strategy as a federal document. Instead, most state bay restoration work is conducted according to state commitments made in a previous bay restoration agreement, the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. Even though Strategy and Chesapeake 2000 Agreement goals are similar to some degree, they also differ in some ways. For example, both call for managing fish species, but the Strategy identifies brook trout as a key species for restoration and the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement does not. Federal and state officials said it is critical that all stakeholders work toward the same goals. The Federal Leadership Committee and the Chesapeake Bay Program--a restoration group established in 1983 that includes federal agencies and watershed states--created an action team in June 2010 to work toward aligning bay restoration goals. Officials from the 11 agencies responsible for the Strategy that GAO surveyed identified three key factors that may reduce the likelihood of achieving Strategy goals and actions: a potential lack of collaboration among stakeholders; funding constraints; and external phenomena, such as climate change. State officials and subject matter experts that GAO interviewed raised similar concerns. Federal officials reported that some form of collaboration is needed to accomplish the Strategy's measurable goals and the vast majority of its actions. In particular, federal-state collaboration is crucial, with federal officials indicating that collaboration with at least one state is necessary to accomplish 96 of the 116 actions in the 12 measurable goals. Federal officials also reported that funding constraints could reduce the likelihood of accomplishing 69 of the actions in 11 of the measurable goals. Furthermore, federal officials reported that external phenomena could reduce the likelihood that 8 of the measurable goals will be achieved. The federal agencies have plans for assessing progress made in implementing the Strategy and restoring bay health, but these plans are limited or not fully developed, and it is unclear what indicators will be used to assess bay health. Per the Strategy, the agencies plan to create 2-year milestones for measuring progress made toward the measurable goals, with the first milestones covering 2012 and 2013. However, establishing milestones for an entire effort can improve the chances the effort can be accomplished efficiently and on time. Also, the Strategy states that the Federal Leadership Committee will develop a process for implementing adaptive management--in which agencies evaluate the impacts of restoration efforts and use the results to adjust future actions--but agency officials told GAO they are still developing this process. Moreover, there are now two groups that plan to assess bay health. The Strategy calls for the Federal Leadership Committee to coordinate with the watershed states to align these assessments. However, the status of this alignment is unclear, and if these groups use different indicators to assess bay health, confusion could result about the overall message of progress made. GAO recommends that EPA work with federal and state stakeholders to develop common goals and clarify plans for assessing progress.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2014, Bay Program partners signed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Signatories include representatives from the entire watershed, committing for the first time the Bay's headwater states to full partnership in the Bay Program. This plan for collaboration across the Bay's political boundaries establishes goals and outcomes for the restoration of the Bay, its tributaries, and the lands that surround them.

    Recommendation: To improve the likelihood that bay restoration is attained, the Administrator of EPA should work collaboratively with federal and state bay restoration stakeholders to develop common bay restoration goals to help ensure that federal and state restoration stakeholders are working toward the same goals.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA reported in June 2014 that a new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement would soon be signed and that the first management strategies for all outcomes in the agreement were to be developed within 1 year, including specific short-term actions that will be the basis for gauging progress. The new Watershed Agreement was signed in June 2014, and we reviewed the management strategies after they were released in June 2015. We found that the strategies call for the development of biennial workplans that will identify key actions, timelines for the actions, and expected outcomes, among other things, but do not contain milestones for gauging progress toward measurable goals for the entire restoration effort. In August 2015, an EPA official confirmed that the agency plans to create 2-year milestones every 2 years and does not plan to establish milestones for the entire restoration effort.

    Recommendation: To improve the likelihood that bay restoration is attained, the Administrator of EPA should work collaboratively with federal and state bay restoration stakeholders to establish milestones for gauging progress toward measurable goals for the entire restoration effort.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2014, EPA officials told us that the Federal Leadership Committee was developing management strategies to implement the 2014 Chesapeake Watershed Agreement that was signed by Bay restoration stakeholders in June 2014. Specifically, the officials stated that the management strategies would include elements specifically designed to facilitate an adaptive management process using an adaptive management decision framework adopted by the Chesapeake Bay Program in May 2011. We reviewed the management strategies after they were released in June 2015 and found that sections of each strategy aligned with the steps of the adaptive management decision framework adopted by the Chesapeake Bay Program. In addition, we found that each management strategy identified the federal and state bay restoration stakeholders that participated in the development of the strategy. In August 2015, an EPA official told us that the management strategies represent the first step toward an adaptive management process for the bay restoration effort. While the development of the adaptive management process is ongoing, the management strategies fulfill the intent of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the likelihood that bay restoration is attained, the Administrator of EPA should work collaboratively with federal and state bay restoration stakeholders to develop an adaptive management process that will allow restoration stakeholders to evaluate progress made in restoring the bay and adjust actions as needed.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2014, EPA officials told us that the Chesapeake Bay Program's Goal Implementation Teams worked with a wide range of bay restoration stakeholders to develop indicators that will be used to assess progress made in improving bay health. These indicators are available at http://www.chesapeakebay.net/track/health/bayhealth.

    Recommendation: To improve the likelihood that bay restoration is attained, the Administrator of EPA should work collaboratively with federal and state bay restoration stakeholders to identify the indicators that will be used for assessing progress made in improving bay health and clarify how the entities responsible for assessing this progress will coordinate their efforts.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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