Watershed Management and the Chesapeake Bay

Image from Virginia Places

Estuaries, according to Judith A. Layzer are “areas where rivers meet the sea and freshwater and saltwater mix” (2016, 92). The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and has severely suffered from biodiversity loss and pollution. By analyzing the policy process (agenda setting, policy formulation, policy adoption/legitimation, policy implementation, policy evaluation, policy change), one can see how the flow of policymaking events affects the Chesapeake Bay’s overall health, and how effective volunteer programs are contrasted with government regulations.

The first step in the policy process model is agenda setting. There were a few events that pushed for the Chesapeake’s revival, including tropical storm Agnes in 1972. The storm created major ecological issues which resulted in an unbalanced food chain. Layzer (2016, 97) explains that this event caused people to understand that “the bay [is] a distinct ecosystem that is dominated by the influence of the watershed” and is not simply an “extension of the sea.” Also, the EPA released an extensive report stating that “poor agricultural practices, inadequate treatment of sewage, and runoff from urban and suburban development” were the causes for the bay’s decay (Layzer 2016, 97). The study was helpful because it pinpointed the sources of the issues, which made it easy for lawmakers to formulate policy.

A regional summit including Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, led by Maryland’s governor, was held in 1983. Here, the leaders legitimized “a voluntary program” called the Chesapeake Bay Program “that recognized that there had been a decline in the bay’s living resources and pledged to work cooperatively on reducing the nutrients entering the bay” (Layzer 2016, 98). The legislator’s close proximity to the bay made the restoration efforts more salient and thus encouraged cooperation.

Policy implementation is typically the most involved and painstaking process because simply founding the program would not solve any issues: how the issues would be solved under supervision of the program had to be discussed by the policymakers. In order to enact changes, agencies including the EPA, Corps, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and NOAA agreed to put together their resources: other agencies joined later on (Layzer 2016, 99). Because there were so many parties, Virginia’s governor emphasized that cooperation was essential. Steps towards restoration included modeling, monitoring, and understanding the bay, treating sewage, and reducing agricultural pollution. For example, Maryland and D.C. “voluntarily created incentives that prompted some improvements in their sewage treatment plants” (Layzer 2016, 103). Maryland and D.C. used incentives as a market mechanism policy tool to implement change. Generally, the more benefits the government provides to a company to implement changes, the more likely that company is to make changes. A ban on phosphate detergent was also implemented. Phosphate deposits into the bay decreased substantially.

Then, by evaluating the policies, one can measure which parts of the policy were effective. This case is particularly unique because there was a mixture of government regulation as well as volunteer efforts. Many efforts were personal choices made by individuals and companies. The initial policy adoption seems to have been the main portion of the process that pushed for change. However, the influence that the government had did have positive impacts. The Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant went from emitting 6 million pounds of phosphorous to 750,000 pounds within the span of 30 years as a response to the incentives. The ban on phosphate was very effective. Overall, though, the bay did not show any major improvements. The reason for this was mostly because of the wide range of factors influencing the bay including weather patterns, overharvesting, and lack of education.

Due to the lack of improvement, the states and D.C. pledged to make more changes. Delaware, New York, and West Virginia joined the effort. Total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) were implemented to reduce pollutants. In fact, changes are constantly being made, indicating that the policy process model reaches for constant improvement. Obama made a commitment to “complete the job by 2025” (Layzer 2016, 120). Due to outside factors, especially population/land use growth, pollution-control efforts were masked. Also, the Bay Program serves as evidence that while volunteer programs are notable, they are not as effective as government regulations and market tools. This case highlights the fact that the final stage of the policy making process, policy change, is not static. Changes must constantly be implemented in order for improvements to be made.


Layzer, Judith A. 2016. The Environmental Case: Translating Values Into Policy. Thousand Oaks, California: CQ Press.

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