Recent Actions by the Chesapeake Bay Program Are Positive Steps Toward More Effectively Guiding the Restoration Effort, but Additional Steps Are Needed

GAO-08-1131R: Published: Aug 28, 2008. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2008.

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Since 1983, the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; the District of Columbia; the Chesapeake Bay Commission; and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have partnered to protect and restore the deteriorated Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The partners established the Chesapeake Bay Program (Bay Program) to manage and coordinate a variety of restoration activities and in their most recent agreement, Chesapeake 2000, which was signed in June 2000, they established 102 commitments for the Chesapeake Bay, which were organized under five broad restoration goals to be achieved by 2010. In October 2005, we issued a report in which we reviewed the management, coordination, and reporting mechanisms used by the Bay Program. Our review found that the Bay Program had (1) developed more than 100 measures of restoration but lacked an integrated approach for measuring the progress being made in restoring the bay, (2) reported on individual species and pollutants but lacked independent and credible mechanisms to report on overall bay health, and (3) developed numerous plans for accomplishing its restoration commitments but lacked a comprehensive strategy that could provide a roadmap for accomplishing the goals outlined in Chesapeake 2000, and (4) used its limited resources to develop plans that could not be implemented within available funding levels and was limited in its ability to target and direct funding to those restoration activities that will be the most cost effective and beneficial. To address these concerns, we recommended that the Bay Program take the following six actions: (1) develop and implement an integrated approach for measuring overall restoration progress, (2) revise its reporting approach to include an assessment of key ecological attributes that reflect the bay's health, (3) report separately on the health of the bay and the progress made in implementing management actions, (4) establish an independent and objective reporting process, (5) develop a coordinated implementation strategy that unifies its various planning documents, and (6)establish a means to better target its limited resources to the most cost-effective restoration activities. In December 2007, the Congress enacted the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 (Pub. L. No. 110-161). An accompanying explanatory statement of the House Committee on Appropriations directed EPA to (1) immediately implement all of the recommendations in our report and (2) submit a report to the Congress demonstrating that our recommendations have been implemented. Following the submission of EPA's July 2008 report to the Congress entitled Strengthening the Management, Coordination, and Accountability of the Chesapeake Bay Program, Congress asked GAO to provide an assessment of the steps taken by the Bay Program to address our 2005 recommendations.

The Bay Program has made progress in addressing the six recommendations made in our October 2005 report. However, while actions taken by the Bay Program have fully addressed three of our six recommendations, additional actions are still needed to fully address the other three recommendations that we made. A Bay Program task force identified 13 key indicators for measuring the health of the bay and categorized these indicators into three indices of bay health. According to the Bay Program, 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. In response to our recommendation that the Bay Program's reports should include an ecological assessment of the health of the bay, the program is now reporting on 13 relevant ecological indicators. actions. The Bay Program has developed a reporting format that, unlike the previous format, distinguishes between ecosystem health and management actions. The Bay Program is using actual monitoring data for the chapter that has an assessment of ecosystem health. The Bay Program has charged its Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee with assuring the scientific integrity of the data, indicators, and indices used in the program's publications. While the changes the Bay Program has made are an improvement over the reporting process that was in place in 2005, we remain concerned about the lack of independence in the process for several reasons. First, while the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee does not manage the day-to-day activities of the program, the committee is a standing committee of the Bay Program and provides input and guidance on developing measures to restore and protect the bay. Second, we do not believe that the report card issued by the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science is as independent as the Bay Program believes because several members of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee are also employees of the center. the Bay Program has developed a strategic framework to unify existing planning documents and articulate how the partnership will pursue its goals. However, this framework provides only broad strategies for meeting the Bay Program's goals, and does not identify the activities that will be needed to reach the goals, resources needed to undertake the activities, or the partner(s) who will be responsible for funding and carrying out the activities. According to the Bay Program, in addition to the strategic framework described above, it has, among other things, (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 positive steps in the right direction, we do not believe that these steps by themselves will allow the Bay Program to target limited resources to the most cost effective strategies. Specifically, not all annual targets, such as those for underwater bay grasses and oysters, have priorities associated with them. Without a clear set of priorities linked to each of the annual targets, we believe that the partners will not be able to focus limited resources on those activities that provide the greatest benefit to the health of the bay.

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