Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and admiring America’s largest estuary, I sometimes wonder how such an immense water body can be impacted by people’s activity on the land.

I try to imagine the vachesapeake-bay-bridgest area of land that drains into the Bay: the Susquehanna River, which empties into the Bay at Havre de Grace, starts as far north as Cooperstown, New York, w
hile the Potomac River extends west to Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia. Half of Pennsylvania and Virginia, virtually all of Maryland, and parts of New York, Delaware and West Virginia are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

I also try to imagine the history of the landscape, which was almost entirely forested 400 years ago. Since then, widespread farming, forestry, mining and other industries spawned population growth, and the imprint of people changed the way water moves toward the rivers and streams that feed the Bay. Hundreds of years of human activity have increased the amount of sediment and pollution washing into the Bay, changing the quality of its waters and habitat.

Earnest efforts to undo these years of impact to the Bay began only recently. In 1983, the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia and the federal government signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement, pledging to restore water quality and to protect forests and other natural buffers in the watershed.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed includes most of Maryland and parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed includes most of Maryland and parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York.

The newest Bay Agreement, signed yesterday, is the next step in restoring the Chesapeake Bay. The agreement puts forward strategies for increasing the sustainability of the Bay’s fisheries and vital habitats, implementing new technologies for improving water quality and remediating toxic contaminants. It also responds to our changing climate and aims to maintain healthy watersheds, conserve land foster stewardship, and improve environmental literacy .

Importantly, the agreement also includes several hard-fought provisions that address land use issues, essential to ensure our progress is not erased by land development and population growth. Since the 1983 agreement was signed, much of the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts have been reactive to wasteful land development practices that increased pollution to the Bay. To limit new impacts from development, we must be proactive and grow smart to reduce the loss of farms and forests and ensure more people are served by top-of-the-line wastewater treatment plants.

We want growth for many reasons, but we must grow smart to achieve our Bay goals and milestones so that we don’t take one step forward but fall two back.

The new Bay Agreement addresses land use change by committing the signatories to four important actions:

  • agreeing on one method to measure the rate of farmland, forest and wetland loss across the region.
  • evaluating policy options, incentives and planning tools that could help local governments  improve their capacity to address land use change.
  • developing strategies to support local governments’ and others’ efforts in reducing land use conversion rates by 2025 and beyond.
  • protecting the healthiest rivers and streams in the Bay watershed through wise land use decisions
The town of Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County

The town of Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County

Many local governments throughout the watershed are making great strides in fostering smart growth and land conservation, but these practices need to become even more widespread if we are to achieve our Bay restoration goals.

The vision of the new Bay Agreement is for an “environmentally and economically sustainable Chesapeake Bay watershed with clean water, abundant life, conserved lands and access to the water, a vibrant cultural heritage, and a diversity of engaged citizens and stakeholders.” Although the challenges we face are significant, by recognizing the importance of land use change in the Bay Agreement, achieving this vision is much more likely.




Governor Martin O’Malley Hosts Chesapeake Executive Council Meeting (Press release, June 16, 2014)