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 vast 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 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 .
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
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)