ith a length of about 200 miles, the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States. It occupies a special place in American culture. When English settlers such as Captain John Smith arrived in the area in the early 1600’s, they described it as a Garden of Eden; a place where “Heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation”. It was in this area where the American Revolution and the Civil War were fought. The Bay has provided livelihoods for millions of people over the years, sustaining generations of oystermen and crabbers.
Today, the Chesapeake watershed is the subject of an intense restoration effort. The ecosystem hit its low point during the 1960’s – President Lyndon Johnson famously described the Potomac River as a “national disgrace” – as commercially important rockfish, crab, and oyster populations plummeted. The Federal government and regional state governments decided that something needed to be done. In 1983, a partnership was formed – the Chesapeake Bay Program – to begin the long road back to a healthy bay.
The effort presents unique challenges politically, economically, environmentally, and socially to those charged with restoring the bay. With a population density that puts enormous pressure on water resources, balancing economic growth, pollution reduction, and improving ecosystem health requires an inclusive approach that engages a range of stakeholders. Part of that approach is valuing ecosystem services in the restoration plan.
Recently we spoke with Rich Batiuk, Associate Director for Science, Analysis and Implementation at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office in Annapolis, Maryland. Rich has been working on Chesapeake Bay restoration for almost 30 years. We asked him about the program’s progress, challenges, and how ecosystem services are taking a role in meeting the intertwined needs of economies, citizens, and the ecosystem.
GreenLeaders DC: Since 1983, there have been many reports on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its restoration. Many of those reports detail conflict between stakeholders and a lack of progress. Is that true and how would you characterize the program’s development to this point?
Rich Batiuk: It’s been an evolution. When we started in 1983, it was Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, the EPA, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. We didn’t have all six states and the District of Columbia involved at that point. New York, West Virginia, and Delaware, eventually came on as partners as well in 2001. Also, back then we had 12 million people in the watershed. Now we’re coming up on 18 million people. The partnership evolved from essentially a one-page agreement between different stakeholders to work together to what it is today. And it’s an ongoing evolution – the conclusion has not been written.
GreenLeaders DC: Are you making progress?
Rich Batiuk: We saw the Chesapeake Bay in the 60’s and 70’s impacting local economies. We were losing the rockfish industry, oysters were certainly on the downturn, people couldn’t swim in the bay, etc. Have we solved all the problems in the last 30 years? No, but it is a different ecosystem from what it was back in 1983. In 1985 when I came on, you could almost walk across the Potomac on top of the algal scums. Since then, the rockfish have come back, crab populations have stabilized, we have thousands of more acres of underwater bay grasses, many streams and rivers across the watershed have cleaner waters, and we’ve reduced the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution flowing into the Bay’s tidal waters.
GreenLeaders DC: What are some of the core challenges in developing an ecosystem services valuation methodology for the Chesapeake watershed?
Rich Batiuk: There was really nowhere else in the country and even in the world, with the exception of some places in Europe, where they figured out how to manage increasing human populations, development of the surrounding watershed, and agricultural production, and restore and maintain clean water. In the Chesapeake, we were at the same time seeking to roll back the amount of pollution and bring back ecosystem services not seen since the 40’s and 50’s. It’s a challenging process because there are humans involved with a range of interests and priorities. In that context we produced a series of agreements that said we needed to clean up the water, and here’s what we think is necessary to do that. In practice that means specifying the level of pollutants and algal blooms that were allowable to achieve our water quality goals for good oxygen and clearer waters. Those guidelines are the basis for the Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL – what we call the bay pollution diet. As I said earlier, it’s been an evolution of how we got six states, the District, the federal government, and over 1,800 localities to work collectively for clean waters their own backyards, their local streams and rivers, and their downstream neighbors.
GreenLeaders DC: What are the standard criteria for identifying and measuring ecosystem services?
Rich Batiuk: For years, we have valued what I would call our common currencies across the Chesapeake watershed. Just like the Euro is a common currency for a number of European nations, in the Chesapeake one of our common currencies is a measure of the pounds of pollution reduced as a result of a particular practice, like planting cover crops or running water through a wastewater treatment facility. But until recently, a key missing element was that we didn’t describe the wider benefits, beyond clean water, of some of these actions. For example, when you put a forested riparian buffer in place, it has a pollution reduction benefit, but it also has an ecological benefit. Being a fisherman and kayaker, I notice when you have a forest right along a stream or rivers, the fishing is usually good along those areas—cooler temperatures, shade, and good in-stream habitat all make for good fish habitat. So now we’re building into this common currency a qualification of ecosystem benefits, in addition to measures of pollutant load reductions, water quality response, and cost analyses for particular practices.
GreenLeaders DC: How much of your effort to value ecosystem services is subject to localized conditions?
Rich Batiuk: That’s a key question. How do you get a diverse group of stakeholders to make shared decisions? In the Chesapeake Bay partnership, we have state, federal, and local governments, the business community, community groups – all of whom have different challenges, values, and priorities. In this area, there’s a long history of different value systems and even political systems. The future is also a big factor. With our projected population growth, aspects such as land use planning is also impacted at the local level. We’re at 18 million people now and the projections say we’ll get another 1.5 million people every decade. And the population growth is occurring not right along the coastline, but in this secondary space which includes former farmlands and forested lands. That has a double-whammy effect because you’re taking out natural water filtration capacity and replacing it with hard surfaces which don’t allow infiltration of rainwater and, hence, more sources of nonpoint pollution. Millions of people now and in the future will get their drinking water from the watershed and use it for recreation. Among all the stakeholders, there’s a recognition that we all something of value that is in our common interest to restore and protect.
GreenLeaders DC: You deal with a lot of scientific, engineering, and technical data. What are the challenges in developing an ecosystem services model to make it practical for such a diverse group of stakeholders?
Rich Batiuk: Operationalizing ecosystem services, making them practical, and incorporating them into the everyday decision-making processes is still a new concept. Data availability is an important factor; ecosystem services are highly dependent on available data to develop the actual quantifiers. And then putting a dollar value on a benefit can be a challenge. For instance, how do you value someone’s enjoyment of the watershed for recreational or spiritual purposes? Plus, because ecosystem services are an interface of many disciplines – biological sciences, environment, policy, economics, social sciences – it makes for a very complex picture when determining what a particular resource is really worth. The key in making ecosystem services practical is getting to a certain level of quantification so we can make reliable comparisons between policy options, particularly as applied at the very local scale.
GreenLeaders DC: Can you give an example of how ecosystem services valuation works in practice?
Rich Batiuk: Let’s consider oysters. There are several levels of ecosystem services they provide. First of all, oysters provide a food provision service that easy to quantify. You can harvest them and get a dockside price for oysters on the half shell, in a soup, etc. Going beyond that, you can look at the filtration capacity of a certain number of oysters and compare that figure to the equivalent amount of wastewater treatment capacity that would be necessary to filter the same amount of water. That’s something our Partnership’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee is working on. From a practical standpoint, it’s sort of like the aquatic equivalent of carbon sequestration. You can have a situation where people say, if I bring those oysters back, I might be able to trade them from a nutrient perspective. In other words, you can put those oysters in water and be paid based on the filtration benefits that the oysters provide, as opposed to expanding a water treatment plant that provides that same water filtration service. Going even further, oysters also have a heritage, community, and historical value in the Chesapeake area. How do you put a value on the ability of local citizens to make a living by fishing, tonging for oysters, or crabbing, beyond what they bring to the local economy? That’s harder to put a value on. Even further, the physical presence of oysters in underwater aquatic reefs provide habitat on a number of species. Again, how does what put a value on housing for the ecosystem.
GreenLeaders DC: How does your work interact with efforts on climate change resilience and adaptation?
Rich Batiuk: Certainly our state-level colleagues who work on climate change mitigation and adaptive management have a strong interest in our work, especially given that we have 10,000 miles of shoreline in the Chesapeake Bay alone. During Hurricane Isabel, one of our counties was 80% underwater. There’s a lot of low-lying areas and marshlands around here. In terms of wetlands’ impact on storm surge protection, that’s certainly an aspect of our work that has direct relevance to climate change adaptation. As for others, more advanced levels of ecosystem services, the direct relevance is not so obvious. Having said that, the agricultural sector, the wastewater managers, and the municipalities are all paying attention to our work because it helps them make more-informed decisions on many issues, including how to mitigate risk from climate change. These communities are all looking at how they can get multiple uses out of their tax dollars. The smarter approaches don’t look at climate change, infrastructure build-out, stormwater protection, and drinking water provision as separate issues. Instead, they thinking about how they can package those things together for comprehensive solutions which are more efficient and save money. Our quantification tools help managers compare options to make those decisions.
GreenLeaders DC: The Chesapeake Bay watershed is massive and policy measures can impact millions of people. What are the key elements of a successful multi-stakeholder model in this context?
Rich Batiuk: Making sure that all stakeholders have a seat at the table is definitely a key. The format for shared decision-making which we have developed and refined over the past three decades is also important for us. One of the decision-making processes we’ve had in place for 25 years now is how to identify best management practices and their effectiveness in reducing impacts on the Bay. Part of that process is an agreed procedure on how science gets brought together. All the stakeholders have agreed to that framework. And that forms the basis for accrediting farmers, municipalities, and others who are doing the work to reduce negative impacts on the Bay.
We are now working on bringing more advanced levels of quantified ecosystem services into that shared decision-making process. So, for example, when we place a value on an ecosystem service and all stakeholders agree on, say, the value of a wetland in flood mitigation or as habitat for migratory birds, then we can bring that quantified value into the process alongside other criteria. That quantification is the basis for the shared currency that is recognized across the watershed. For it to work, all stakeholders need to agree on the process, the application of sound science principles, and the accreditation procedures.
GreenLeaders DC: Your work mainly focuses on the water quality side of the Chesapeake Bay program. Can you give an illustration of how far you’ve come in achieving the partnership’s goals?
Rich Batiuk: Certainly one of the areas I’ve observed over time is the evolution of how we handle wastewater from municipal sources. In the 80’s we were dealing with many issues that needed decisions: whether or not to limit nitrogen and phosphorous, how much should we limit them, etc. In some cases we had not raw sewage, but some very basic treatments for sewage which then flowed into the rivers and the ecosystem. We were just figuring out how to put all the infrastructure in place to make that work for citizens who were paying their utility bills every month.
If we go forward 30 years to the present day, we will have 478 wastewater treatment plants in place by 2015 with advanced pollutant removal systems across the watershed. And that will be the norm. So given the technology availability, the number of stakeholders, and the regulatory frameworks, we’ve gone from having very basic water treatment to some of the most advanced treatment facilities in the world. It’s been this evolution over time that involved policy, engineering, finance, environmental, and social aspects.
The Potomac during that time has come from, like I said, being a national embarrassment where you could walk across the algal scum, to now, where we have national bass tournaments right outside the nation’s capital. For bass fishing, in fact, there’s some of the best underwater grasses anywhere along the east coast right in the D.C. area. Every five years the Department of Interior puts out a survey of outdoor recreation, and in the 2011 report you see that just in Maryland alone, the economic value of fishing and wildlife watching is over a billion dollars. That just shows how much people really value these natural areas and the role that ecosystem health plays in a prosperous economy. Being able to include and internalize those benefits into decision-making processes will put us far along the path to a truly restored Chesapeake Bay.
Associate Director for Science, Analysis and Implementation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Rich has worked at the Chesapeake Bay Program for more than 25 years, leading the integration of science into multi-partner decision-making. He is responsible for providing state-of-the-science environmental monitoring, multi-media modeling, distributed data and information management, and technical data analysis and interpretation to the partnership. He is also leading efforts to use the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet, to help state and local partners accelerate their on-the-ground reduction of nutrient and sediment pollution.