EPA helping local communities restore the Chesapeake Bay

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The Chesapeake Bay has been one of the most intensely watched and debated ecological zones in the Eastern United States. For the past several months, the EPA has been developing an online decision support system to help cities and towns around the bay, and anyone concerned with this fragile ecosystem, figure out the best sites for restoration or conservation. Biologist and environmental scientist at EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office, Emily Trentacoste talked to Federal Drive with Tom Temin about how it all works.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: This tool, tell us about what it is you’re working on.

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, so this project is a new collaboration between EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program office where I am in Annapolis, Maryland, and EPA’s Atlantic coastal Environmental Sciences Division in Narragansett Rhode Island, which is part of EPA Office of Research and Development. And these two parts of EPA had overlapping interests in supporting the decision making that’s happening in local communities around conservation, restoration and resiliency. And to kind of cut to the punch line, the purpose of this project is to develop decision support systems that can help coastal communities identify the best locations for conservation or restoration projects that build and maintain coastal resiliency. But also consider other priorities that community might have. The idea is to let the user really customize which priorities are most important to them, and then identify areas where conservation or restoration would provide the most benefits related to those priorities.

Tom Temin: This tool, tell us about what it is you’re working on.

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, so this project is a new collaboration between EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program office where I am in Annapolis, Maryland, and EPA’s Atlantic coastal Environmental Sciences Division in Narragansett Rhode Island, which is part of EPA Office of Research and Development. And these two parts of EPA had overlapping interests in supporting the decision making that’s happening in local communities around conservation, restoration and resiliency. And to kind of cut to the punch line, the purpose of this project is to develop decision support systems that can help coastal communities identify the best locations for conservation or restoration projects that build and maintain coastal resiliency. But also consider other priorities that community might have. The idea is to let the user really customize which priorities are most important to them, and then identify areas where conservation or restoration would provide the most benefits related to those priorities.

Tom Temin: Because the Chesapeake Bay is often cited as a great big body of water that is polluted for whatever reason, chicken farm runoff, and you name it, but it sounds like this program is aimed at what a local community might do for, say, a dock or an inlet or a forest that is along the bay.

Emily Trentacoste: That’s right, yep. It’s allowing local communities to look at different geographic areas within their community that they might want to do projects or focus their efforts. One of the things that we’ve learned over the history of the Chesapeake Bay Program Office and the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership, which is a Regional Partnership for the Chesapeake Bay region, one of the things we’ve learned is that local communities are really where the rubber meets the road. It’s these communities that are the ones that are carrying out projects, and really making the work happen for conservation and restoration. And so we also recognize that while we might have our goals and priorities, that we’re focused on local communities have a lot of their own priorities and goals. And they often have to worry about a lot more issues than just what we’re focused on. And so we’re really interested in better understanding the priorities of local communities, identifying where there’s intersections between our goals, and identifying approaches that are mutually beneficial so that we can help provide the support these communities need to make decisions that addresses goals.

Tom Temin: Give us some examples of what might be a typical conservation project and a typical restoration project?

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, that’s a great question. So let’s say you’re in a community that’s really interested in protecting infrastructure from flood damage. But outdoor recreation is also really important to members of your community. There are different approaches that might be beneficial for both of those priorities. Let’s say there are certain areas within your community where you have forested land, and it would be good to conserve those lands so that when you’re doing development in your community, you make sure to try and keep those lands as natural as possible. Or let’s say you have an area where along the stream the forest has been taken out. And there’s an opportunity to go back in and restore some of the natural landscape around that stream. Those are some examples of the types of projects that local communities might be looking at. And the idea with this tool in this project is that it would allow you to customize which things are most important to you, and then identify those locations on your landscape we’re doing some of those approaches would be most beneficial.

Tom Temin: Tell us how the tool will work. What kinds of inputs do local users put into it and what kind of information does it spit out to them?

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, so that’s actually one of the things that we are still going to try and figure out over the course of this project, I think one thing we do know is the basic idea is we want the user to be able to enter in their priorities. That’s something that would make this tool stand out from some of the other options that are out there right now. So at minimum, we want the user to be able to customize what’s important to them and their local community. But one of the one of the reasons that we’re having this collaborative project between these two parts of EPA is that at the Chesapeake Bay program office, we support the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership, which as I said, is a unique regional partnership between six states and Washington DC which make up the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed or the land draining to the Chesapeake Bay, as well as federal agencies including EPA and many other partners including legislators academic and nonprofit institutions. So this regional partnership provides us a really amazing way to engage with different stakeholders throughout the region. The partnership has existed for over 35 years to coordinate the restoration and protection of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. And so it has really robust and mature networks and channels to be able to engage with stakeholders, and especially local communities. And so that’s one of the reasons that we were interested in this collaboration with the Atlantic Coastal Environmental Sciences Division is because they’re able to tap into this robust network of stakeholders that we have. So one of the things that we want to do as we develop this tool is not be prescriptive about what it should look like, or exactly how it should be used. Like I said, we have some things at minimum that we want to make sure it includes. But we kind of want to do a whole process of stakeholder engagement to understand what’s going to be most useful to them in terms of the tool. So that’s part of this project as well is kind of doing that discovery with our end users about how they’re going to want to use a tool at the end of the day.

Tom Temin: I imagine one of the obstacles to smooth functioning of any of these projects or of the tool is the fact that sometimes you have clashing interests in the same location, like you may have landowners that don’t want forest put back or do want forest put back and you have others that want to clearing or whatever. And sometimes those can be an obstacle to getting anything done.

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, that’s very true. I think a lot of communities at different scales have competing priorities and have to look at trade offs between those different goals. And so what we’re hoping is, one of the things this tool can do is allow those users to put in all of those different priorities if they want or look at different combinations of different priorities and see which locations in their community stick out as being the most beneficial places to focus efforts based on those priorities. There’s also other work going on at EPA looking at some of the trade offs between different benefits that are provided by some of these approaches. And so there’s a lot of really great work going on in this space to help try and support the decisions that are going on at that level.

Tom Temin: And what is your timeline for the rollout of the tools that you can go to the different towns and cities and say, here it is?

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, so we’re still at the beginning of this process and the project, we’ve been working with the Chesapeake Bay program partnership, to engage with stakeholders, and to start to understand what types of decisions they’re making at these local levels. And, importantly, who makes them. So we’re starting to identify the benefits associated with different conservation, restoration and resiliency approaches and how those benefits can relate to these local priorities. But I will say that, again, we’re kind of at the beginning of this process, we’re really wanting to make sure that stakeholder engagement is a large part of it. And so I think we’ll really be working on this over the next year. The idea is to try and have something that we can put out at the end of 2021. But it’s really going to be an iterative process where we try and work with stakeholders to improve the tool in the future as well.

Tom Temin: And just what are the basic trends in pollution and decay, say, of the Chesapeake Bay? Because I mean, it reached the watershed, no pun intended, some years ago. Is it on the mend in general?

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, that’s a great question. So there’s a lot of different things to look at with the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. And that’s one of the great things about the Chesapeake Bay program partnership is it doesn’t just focus necessarily in the bay, but it looks at different metrics that we’re trying to track and different goals that we have for all across the watershed. In terms of the bay itself, the health has been improving, especially over the 35 years that this partnership has been in place, we’re seeing one of the really important metrics that we look at in the bay, which is the dissolved oxygen that supports the living resources in the bay. We’re seeing that come back. We’re seeing pollution decrease coming off of the watershed. And so there are definitely improvements being made. And there’s definitely a lot of work to still do.

Tom Temin: Well, those of us that, like oysters and crabs will appreciate this work long term, I guess. And the tool itself and the activities that engenders. Those are all aimed ultimately at cleaning up the bay.

Emily Trentacoste: Yes. So for the tool itself, I think one of the big purposes is to not only help clean up the bay, but also addresses local priorities. And so ultimately, yes, the types of approaches that would be put in place by users of this tool or by local communities would definitely help the bay and its watershed in the long run, but the hope is that they’re also addressing local priorities and issues.

Tom Temin: Because the Chesapeake Bay is often cited as a great big body of water that is polluted for whatever reason, chicken farm runoff, and you name it, but it sounds like this program is aimed at what a local community might do for, say, a dock or an inlet or a forest that is along the bay.

Emily Trentacoste: That’s right, yep. It’s allowing local communities to look at different geographic areas within their community that they might want to do projects or focus their efforts. One of the things that we’ve learned over the history of the Chesapeake Bay Program Office and the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership, which is a Regional Partnership for the Chesapeake Bay region, one of the things we’ve learned is that local communities are really where the rubber meets the road. It’s these communities that are the ones that are carrying out projects, and really making the work happen for conservation and restoration. And so we also recognize that while we might have our goals and priorities, that we’re focused on local communities have a lot of their own priorities and goals. And they often have to worry about a lot more issues than just what we’re focused on. And so we’re really interested in better understanding the priorities of local communities, identifying where there’s intersections between our goals, and identifying approaches that are mutually beneficial so that we can help provide the support these communities need to make decisions that addresses goals.

Tom Temin: Give us some examples of what might be a typical conservation project and a typical restoration project?

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, that’s a great question. So let’s say you’re in a community that’s really interested in protecting infrastructure from flood damage. But outdoor recreation is also really important to members of your community. There are different approaches that might be beneficial for both of those priorities. Let’s say there are certain areas within your community where you have forested land, and it would be good to conserve those lands so that when you’re doing development in your community, you make sure to try and keep those lands as natural as possible. Or let’s say you have an area where along the stream the forest has been taken out. And there’s an opportunity to go back in and restore some of the natural landscape around that stream. Those are some examples of the types of projects that local communities might be looking at. And the idea with this tool in this project is that it would allow you to customize which things are most important to you, and then identify those locations on your landscape we’re doing some of those approaches would be most beneficial.

Tom Temin: Tell us how the tool will work. What kinds of inputs do local users put into it and what kind of information does it spit out to them?

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, so that’s actually one of the things that we are still going to try and figure out over the course of this project, I think one thing we do know is the basic idea is we want the user to be able to enter in their priorities. That’s something that would make this tool stand out from some of the other options that are out there right now. So at minimum, we want the user to be able to customize what’s important to them and their local community. But one of the one of the reasons that we’re having this collaborative project between these two parts of EPA is that at the Chesapeake Bay program office, we support the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership, which as I said, is a unique regional partnership between six states and Washington DC which make up the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed or the land draining to the Chesapeake Bay, as well as federal agencies including EPA and many other partners including legislators academic and nonprofit institutions. So this regional partnership provides us a really amazing way to engage with different stakeholders throughout the region. The partnership has existed for over 35 years to coordinate the restoration and protection of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. And so it has really robust and mature networks and channels to be able to engage with stakeholders, and especially local communities. And so that’s one of the reasons that we were interested in this collaboration with the Atlantic Coastal Environmental Sciences Division is because they’re able to tap into this robust network of stakeholders that we have. So one of the things that we want to do as we develop this tool is not be prescriptive about what it should look like, or exactly how it should be used. Like I said, we have some things at minimum that we want to make sure it includes. But we kind of want to do a whole process of stakeholder engagement to understand what’s going to be most useful to them in terms of the tool. So that’s part of this project as well is kind of doing that discovery with our end users about how they’re going to want to use a tool at the end of the day.

Tom Temin: I imagine one of the obstacles to smooth functioning of any of these projects or of the tool is the fact that sometimes you have clashing interests in the same location, like you may have landowners that don’t want forest put back or do want forest put back and you have others that want to clearing or whatever. And sometimes those can be an obstacle to getting anything done.

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, that’s very true. I think a lot of communities at different scales have competing priorities and have to look at trade offs between those different goals. And so what we’re hoping is, one of the things this tool can do is allow those users to put in all of those different priorities if they want or look at different combinations of different priorities and see which locations in their community stick out as being the most beneficial places to focus efforts based on those priorities. There’s also other work going on at EPA looking at some of the trade offs between different benefits that are provided by some of these approaches. And so there’s a lot of really great work going on in this space to help try and support the decisions that are going on at that level.

Tom Temin: And what is your timeline for the rollout of the tools that you can go to the different towns and cities and say, here it is?

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, so we’re still at the beginning of this process and the project, we’ve been working with the Chesapeake Bay program partnership, to engage with stakeholders, and to start to understand what types of decisions they’re making at these local levels. And, importantly, who makes them. So we’re starting to identify the benefits associated with different conservation, restoration and resiliency approaches and how those benefits can relate to these local priorities. But I will say that, again, we’re kind of at the beginning of this process, we’re really wanting to make sure that stakeholder engagement is a large part of it. And so I think we’ll really be working on this over the next year. The idea is to try and have something that we can put out at the end of 2021. But it’s really going to be an iterative process where we try and work with stakeholders to improve the tool in the future as well.

Tom Temin: And just what are the basic trends in pollution and decay, say, of the Chesapeake Bay? Because I mean, it reached the watershed, no pun intended, some years ago. Is it on the mend in general?

Emily Trentacoste: Yeah, that’s a great question. So there’s a lot of different things to look at with the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. And that’s one of the great things about the Chesapeake Bay program partnership is it doesn’t just focus necessarily in the bay, but it looks at different metrics that we’re trying to track and different goals that we have for all across the watershed. In terms of the bay itself, the health has been improving, especially over the 35 years that this partnership has been in place, we’re seeing one of the really important metrics that we look at in the bay, which is the dissolved oxygen that supports the living resources in the bay. We’re seeing that come back. We’re seeing pollution decrease coming off of the watershed. And so there are definitely improvements being made. And there’s definitely a lot of work to still do.

Tom Temin: Well, those of us that, like oysters and crabs will appreciate this work long term, I guess. And the tool itself and the activities that engenders. Those are all aimed ultimately at cleaning up the bay.

Emily Trentacoste: Yes. So for the tool itself, I think one of the big purposes is to not only help clean up the bay, but also addresses local priorities. And so ultimately, yes, the types of approaches that would be put in place by users of this tool or by local communities would definitely help the bay and its watershed in the long run, but the hope is that they’re also addressing local priorities and issues.

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