Chesapeake Bay Program:

Improved Strategies Are Needed to Better Assess, Report, and Manage Restoration Progress

GAO-06-96: Published: Oct 28, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 15, 2005.

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The Chesapeake Bay Program (Bay Program) was created in 1983 when Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, and EPA agreed to establish a partnership to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Their most recent agreement, Chesapeake 2000, sets out an agenda and five broad goals to guide these efforts through 2010 and contains 102 commitments that the partners agreed to accomplish. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which appropriate measures for assessing restoration progress have been established, (2) the extent to which current reporting mechanisms clearly and accurately describe the bay's overall health, (3) how much funding was provided for the effort for fiscal years 1995 through 2004, and (4) how effectively the effort is being coordinated and managed.

The Bay Program has over 100 measures to assess progress toward meeting certain restoration commitments and providing information to guide management decisions. However, the program has not yet developed an integrated approach that would allow it to translate these individual measures into an assessment of overall progress toward achieving the five broad restoration goals outlined in Chesapeake 2000. For example, while the Bay Program has appropriate measures to track crab, oyster, and rockfish populations, it does not have an approach for integrating the results of these measures to assess progress toward the agreement's goal of protecting and restoring the bay's living resources. The Bay Program has recognized that it may need an integrated approach for assessing overall progress in restoring the bay and, in November 2004, a task force began working on this effort. The State of the Chesapeake Bay reports are the Bay Program's primary mechanism for reporting the current health status of the bay. However, these reports do not effectively communicate the bay's current conditions because they focus on the status of individual species or pollutants instead of providing information on a core set of ecosystem characteristics. Moreover, the credibility of these reports has been negatively impacted because the program has commingled various kinds of data such as monitoring data, results of program actions, and the results of its predictive model without clearly distinguishing among them. As a result, the public cannot easily determine whether the health of the bay is improving or not. Moreover, the lack of independence in the Bay Program's reporting process has led to negative trends being downplayed and a rosier picture of the bay's health being reported than may have been warranted. The program has recognized that improvements are needed and is developing new reporting formats. From fiscal years 1995 through 2004, the restoration effort received about $3.7 billion in direct funding from 11 key federal agencies; the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; and the District of Columbia. These funds were used for activities that supported water quality protection and restoration, sound land use, vital habitat protection and restoration, living resource protection and restoration, and stewardship and community engagement. During this time period, the restoration effort also received an additional $1.9 billion in indirect funding. The Bay Program does not have a comprehensive, coordinated implementation strategy to better enable it to achieve the goals outlined in Chesapeake 2000. Although the program has adopted 10 key commitments to focus partners' efforts and developed plans to achieve them, some of these plans are inconsistent with each other or are perceived as unachievable by program partners. The limited assurances about the availability of resources beyond the short term further complicate the Bay Program's ability to effectively coordinate restoration efforts and strategically manage its resources.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Bay Program is managed and coordinated effectively, the Administrator of EPA should instruct the Chesapeake Bay Program Office to work with Bay Program partners to develop an overall, coordinated implementation strategy that unifies the program's various planning documents.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Bay Program has developed a strategic framework to unify existing planning documents and articulate how the partnership will pursue its goals. According to the Bay Program, this framework is intended to provide the partners with a common understanding of the partnership's agenda of work. However the framework provides only broad strategies for meeting the Bay Program's goals and does not identify the activities needed to reach the goals, the resources needed to undertake the activities, or the partner(s) that will be responsible for funding and carrying out the activities.

    Recommendation: To revise its reporting approach and to improve the effectiveness and credibility of the Bay Program's reports on the health of the bay, the Administrator of EPA should instruct the Chesapeake Bay Program Office to establish an independent and objective reporting process.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Bay Program has charged its Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) with assuring the scientific integrity of the data, indicators, and indices used in the program's publications. In addition, it has instituted a separate reporting process by the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, which assesses the bay's health in a report-card format. While the changes made are an improvement over the reporting process that was in place, we do not think that either STAC or the report card issued by the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science provide a fully independent review because of several reasons. First, because the STAC is a standing committee on the Bay Program and provides input and guidance on measures to restore and protect the bay, we do not believe that it can provide a fully independent review of the Bay Program reports. Second, because several members of STAC are also employees of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, we do not believe that the report issued by the Center is as independent as the Bay Program believes.

    Recommendation: To revise its reporting approach and to improve the effectiveness and credibility of the Bay Program's reports on the health of the bay, the Administrator of EPA should instruct the Chesapeake Bay Program Office to report separately on the health of the bay and on the progress made in implementing management actions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Bay Program has developed a reporting format that, unlike the previous format, distinguishes between ecosystem health and management actions. For example, the Bay Program's recent reports are divided into four chapters: chapter 1 is an assessment of ecosystem health, chapter 2 is describes factors impacting bay and watershed health, chapter 3 is an assessment of restoration efforts, and chapter 4 provides an assessment of local water quality assessments.

    Recommendation: To revise its reporting approach and to improve the effectiveness and credibility of the Bay Program's reports on the health of the bay, the Administrator of EPA should instruct the Chesapeake Bay Program Office to include an assessment of the key ecological attributes that reflect the bay's current health conditions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation that the Bay Program's reports should include an ecological assessment of the health of the bay, a Bay Task force identified 13 key indicators for measuring the health of the bay and categorized these indicators into three indices of bay health. The Bay Program is using these indices to report on the bay's health.

    Recommendation: To improve the methods used by the Bay Program to assess progress made on the restoration effort, the Administrator of EPA should instruct the Chesapeake Bay Program Office to complete its plans to develop and implement an integrated approach to assess overall restoration progress. In doing so, the Chesapeake Bay Program Office should ensure that this integrated approach clearly ties to the five broad restoration goals identified in Chesapeake 2000.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation that the Bay Program's reports should include develop an integrated approach for measuring the health of the bay, a Bay Task force identified 13 key indicators for measuring the health of the bay and categorized these indicators into three indices of bay health. In addition, the task force identified 20 key indicators for measuring the progress of restoration activities that are linked to the goals outlined in Chesapeake 2000. These indices are now being used to assess and report on the overall progress being made in restoring the bay's health and implementing restoration efforts.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Bay Program is managed and coordinated effectively, the Administrator of EPA should instruct the Chesapeake Bay Program Office to work with Bay Program partners to establish a means to better target its limited resources to ensure that the most effective and realistic work plans are developed and implemented.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Bay Program has taken the initial steps to target limited resources to the most cost-effective strategies. In addition to developing a strategic framework, the Bay Program has (1) adopted an adaptive management process that will allow it to modify the restoration strategy in response to testing, monitoring, and new knowledge; (2) developed annual targets that it believes are more realistic and likely to be achieved; and (3) established a funding priority framework that lists priorities for agriculture, wastewater treatment, and land management activities. While these are steps in the right direction, additional steps, such as identifying resources, assigning accountability, and setting priorities for all annual tatets are needed to focus on activities with the greatest environmental benefit.

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