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Fall 2011 Vol. 11 Number 2

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Plans to Restore Two Bays Receive Expert Reviews

Photos courtesy California Department of Water Resources

On opposite coasts of the country, significant efforts are under way to conserve and restore two of the nation’s most critical waterways — the Chesapeake Bay and the California Bay Delta. Shaped by human activity over the last century, the bays are homes to thousands of plant and animal species and serve as important commercial and recreational resources. The National Research Council was called upon to review the restoration programs and evaluate how to improve their missions for successful results.

On the East Coast, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the six Chesapeake watershed states, and the District of Columbia have formed a cooperative partnership called the Chesapeake Bay Program that focuses on limiting the entry of pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment into bay waters. The committee that looked at this program found its two-year milestone strategy to track pollution control practices improves upon past strategies by committing states to tangible, near-term goals. However, the consequences for failing to attain the goals remain unclear.

The committee’s report also says that nearly all states in the program have insufficient information to evaluate how well they are reducing nutrient pollution, limiting their capacity to make midcourse corrections. Numerous challenges affect the consistency and accuracy of the tracking and accounting of nutrient reduction practices, which could lead to an incomplete and possibly inaccurate picture of overall progress.

The committee was concerned that the public may have overly optimistic expectations for the program. Because visible evidence of improved water quality will be delayed significantly, public confidence may wane. To sustain support, these uncertainties and lag times should be communicated clearly.

Photos courtesy California Department of Water ResourcesThe Research Council also reviewed the draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which aims to serve as a habitat conservation plan and gain authorization under the federal Endangered Species Act and compan ion California legislation for a proposed water diversion project, such as a canal or tunnel, in the delta region. Under the plan, water would be taken from the northern part of the delta directly to the central and southern part of the state for agricultural and domestic uses — while trying to mitigate the project’s impact on the region’s ecosystems, particularly endangered and threatened fishes.

The report says that the BDCP has critical missing components including a clearly defined purpose. In addition, the plan states that the principal component of a habitat conservation plan is a scientific analysis of the potential impacts on delta species and how those species would benefit from conservation actions. However, the analysis was not included in the plan because it is still being prepared. The study panel noted that this omission results in a critical gap in the science and makes it hard to evaluate alternative mitigation and conservation actions.

Moreover, the BDCP lacks clarity in its purpose, which makes it difficult to properly understand, interpret, and review the science that underlies the plan. Specifically, it is unclear whether the BDCP is exclusively a habitat conservation plan or intended to also be a plan that achieves California’s “co-equal goals” of providing reliable water supply and protecting and enhancing the delta ecosystem. “There is a strong body of solid science to support some of the actions discussed in the BDCP, but because the science is not well-integrated, we are getting less from the science than we could,” said Henry Vaux, chair of the study panel. “A stronger and more complete plan could contribute impor tantly to solving the problems that beset the delta.”   -- Jennifer Walsh & Lorin Hancock

Achieving Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Goals in the Chesapeake Bay: An Evaluation of Program Strategies and Implementation. Committee on the Evaluation of Chesapeake Bay Program Implementation for Nutrient Reduction to Improve Water Quality,Water Science and Technology Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2011, 258 pp.; ISBN 0-309-21079-8).The committee was chaired by Kenneth H. Reckhow, professor of water resources at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, N.C.The study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A Review of the Use of Science and Adaptive Management in California’s Draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Panel to Review California’s Draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan,Water Science and Technology Board and Ocean Studies Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2011, 100 pp.; ISBN 0-309-21231-6).The panel was chaired by Henry J. Vaux, professor emeritus of resource economics at the University of California in Berkeley and Riverside.The study was funded by the U.S. departments of the Interior and Commerce.

Both reports are available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242.

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences