Celebrating 40 Years of Chesapeake Bay Restoration

Over the past 40 years, the Chesapeake Bay Program has guided the restoration and conservation of the nation’s largest estuary. What started as a partnership between Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency has grown to include all of the states whose rivers drain into the Bay, as well as a number of other nonprofit, university, and state and federal partners.

Watch a chronicle of the partnership's restoration efforts within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Milestones in Science, Restoration and Partnership

1983 - 1989


1983 - The first Chesapeake Bay Agreement is signed

On December 9, 1983, the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission came together to sign the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement. This agreement, which was based on a five-year study conducted by the EPA, committed the signatories to addressing the issues plaguing the Chesapeake Bay. Within a year, the signing partners developed their plan for carrying out the Agreement and thereby formed the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Black and white photo of members of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Executive Council signing a document with excited spectators behind them.
The Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983 was a one-page document recognizing that a cooperative approach was necessary to address the Bay’s pollution problems. (Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program)

1985 - A leading water quality monitoring program is established

Prior to 1985, water quality monitoring occurred at the state level, which made it difficult to compare and synthesize the data for the full watershed. In 1985, the Chesapeake Bay Water Quality Monitoring program was created to ensure that Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. were monitoring Chesapeake waters the same way. This program has grown to include over 250 monitoring stations in the tidal and non-tidal portions of the Bay, collecting data on water quality, benthic macroinvertebrates, underwater grasses, land use and land change.

Male biologist kneels on a bridge above a creek preparing monitoring equipment.
The U.S. Geological Survey monitors a network of stations in the Chesapeake watershed. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

1986 - Bay Program launches first nutrient management plan

The Chesapeake Bay Program created its first nutrient management plan in 1986 after identifying the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus on water quality. At first, efforts were focused on the tidal water of the Chesapeake Bay, but by 1987, the partnership began using tributary-based management strategies that focus on reducing nutrient pollution in major rivers. This effort eventually evolved into the Watershed Implementation Plans now used to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution from all seven jurisdictions of the watershed.

A farm from the 1980's with eroded and heavily tilled soil, with cows in the background.
Nutrient management plans outline steps to reduce pollution from sources like livestock on farms. (Photo courtesy of Kent Mountford)

1987 - A new Chesapeake Bay Agreement is signed

As the partnership evolved and new research came to light, the Chesapeake Bay Program signed its second Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1987. This agreement expanded the scope of the 1983 agreement with 29 commitments for action and set a goal to reduce nutrients entering the Bay by 40% by 2000.

Senator Mathias, a white male with grey hair, walks toward a podium in a packed room.
Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias, whose call for research led to the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Program, rises to speak at the 1987 Chesapeake Executive Council Meeting in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of Kent Mountford)

1989 - Partner jurisdictions ban phosphate detergent

By the late 1980s, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Executive Council became increasingly concerned over the impacts of phosphate detergent, a common laundry detergent used in households at the time. At the request of the Executive Council, the Chesapeake Bay Commission produced a report on the issue that led to regional bans on the product in Maryland (1985), Washington, D.C., (1986), Virginia (1988) and Pennsylvania (1989). The bans played a significant role in limiting nutrient pollution to the Bay and demonstrated successful collaboration amongst the Chesapeake Bay Program’s partners.

An aisle in a grocery store stocked with laundry detergent as a shopper walks by.
A grocery store in 1995 shows only detergents with trace amounts of phosphorus, following a ban that kept six million pounds of the nutrient out of the Bay each year. (Photo courtesy of Kent Mountford)

1989 - Jurisdictions come together to manage blue crab fishery

In 1989, the Chesapeake Bay Program developed its first Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Fishery Management Plan to promote collaboration among the three jurisdictions that manage commercial crabbing in the watershed: Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC). Nearly a decade later, in 1997, we developed a committee to provide advice to those managing the blue crab fishery. This committee, known as the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, meets annually to review survey data and make its recommendations.

A blue crab on the deck of a boat lifts its front pinchers in a defensive stance.
Blue crabs remain a vital Chesapeake industry despite variable populations. (Photo by Carlin Stiehl/Chesapeake Bay Program)

1990 - 1999


1993 - Executive Council adopts policy to keep invasive species out of the Bay

By 1993, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Executive Council signed the Chesapeake Bay Policy for the Introduction of Non-indigenous Aquatic Species. This policy established a joint review process for Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania to carefully assess first-time introduction of non-native species to the watershed. It also committed to collaboration among jurisdictions to prevent the unintentional introduction of new species.

A blue catfish with a dark blue-black top and white underside sits on the base of a boat with its mouth open.
Invasive species like blue catfish have put pressure on native species. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

1995 - Striped bass recover in the Bay

Starting in the early 1980s, the Chesapeake Bay Program led an effort to restore a dwindling striped bass fishery. Following in-depth research, Maryland placed a moratorium on commercial and recreational fishing of striped bass in 1987, and Virginia did the same two years later. The moratoriums were lifted in 1992 and limited harvest seasons continued in each state. By 1995, striped bass were officially declared restored. Today, protection of striped bass continues with harvest restrictions and efforts to improve habitat.

A school of striped bass, which are long, silver fish with black stripes, swim at the bottom of a river.
Pollution continues to threaten striped bass populations. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

1995 - Partnership bolsters its relationship with local governments

In 1995, the Local Government Partnership Initiative was signed, engaging the watershed’s 1,650 local governments in the Bay restoration effort. This demonstrated a commitment from the Bay Program to work closely with local governments on implementing restoration projects that met the needs of their residents. Nearly two decades later, the Executive Council reaffirmed this commitment by signing the Resolution to Support Local Engagement in 2016.

A group of people gather around a table where three boxes containing mulch demo the affects of temperature on soil.
Local Government Advisory Committee leads a tour of restoration projects in Accomack County, Virginia. (Photo by Ola-Imani Davis/Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay)

1998 - Chesapeake Gateways network connects people to the Bay

In 1998, the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails network (Chesapeake Gateways) was formed by the Chesapeake Bay Initiative Act, which called on the National Park Service (NPS) to identify, conserve, restore, interpret, and provide equitable access to natural, recreational, historic, and cultural resources within the 41-million acre Chesapeake Bay watershed. The NPS has provided approximately $26 million in financial and technical assistance for more than 397 projects in communities across the watershed through Chesapeake Gateways, improving Bay access and fueling the region’s outdoor recreation economy. The network bolsters the Bay Program’s ongoing efforts to add public access sites to the Bay, which started in 1987 and continues today.

An aerial view of the Chesapeake Bay bridge as it crosses the Chesapeake Bay on a sunny day.
Chesapeake Gateways includes natural, cultural, historical and recreational sites, trails, museums, parks, refuges, interpretive and orientation facilities and associated programs. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2000 - 2009


2000 - Third agreement is signed

Chesapeake 2000 was the third Bay agreement to be signed and the first to emphasize ecosystem-based fisheries management. The Agreement established a record-high 102 commitments to reduce pollution, restore habitats, protect living resources, promote sound land use practices and engage the public in Bay restoration. The Agreement committed to strengthening partnerships with Delaware, New York and West Virginia which led to them signing on to the partnership’s water quality goals, marking the first time that these states were officially included in the partnership.

A group of male and female politicians gather on a grassy shoreline as one speaks at a microphone.
The Chesapeake Executive Council speaks to the media at the 2000 Chesapeake Executive Council Meeting in Friendship, Maryland. (Photo courtesy of the State of Maryland)

2001 - Protecting wetlands in non-tidal areas

Initially, the Chesapeake Bay Program was focused on protecting wetlands mainly in the tidal areas of the Chesapeake Bay, which required significant attention. But by 2001, both Maryland and Virginia passed state laws protecting wetlands in non-tidal rivers. This greatly expanded the protection of wetlands against development.

A great blue heron sits at the edge of the water in a highly vegetated wetland.
Florence Shelly Preserve protects non-tidal wetlands in the Susquehanna River watershed in Pennsylvania. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2009 - Commitment from federal agencies is reaffirmed

In 2009, the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order was signed by President Barack Obama, calling on the federal government to renew the effort to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This Executive Order fostered collaboration between federal agencies including the Department of Defense, United States Department of Agriculture, United States Geological Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Three politicians, one of which is President Barack Obama, stand behind a Navy officer in a white uniform on the Navy football stadium.
President Barack Obama attends the US Naval Academy commencement in May 2009, the same month Obama issued the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House)

2010 - 2023


2010 - A 10-year riparian buffer goal is met

In 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Program met its Riparian Forest Buffer Goal of planting 2,010 miles of riparian forest in the watershed in 10 years. In 2014, a new goal for riparian forest buffers was set in the most recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

On a farm with newly planted trees, a male forester tends to one tree with a barn in the background.
Forest buffers help absorb stormwater runoff pollution from farm fields and other sources. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2014 - Conserving the lands of the Underground Railroad

For decades, the Chesapeake Bay Program has worked to conserve lands with both environmental and cultural significance. In 2014, state and federal partners within the Chesapeake Bay program came together to establish the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The park tells the story of Harriet Tubman and the lives of enslaved people living in the region. It also includes forest and wetland areas that are critical for wildlife habitat and water quality in the Bay. Efforts such as these continue with the work of the Bay Program’s Protected Lands Outcome.

A white church sits in the middle of a flat farm area on a cloudy day.
Scott's Chapel is a historical site on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway in Dorchester County, Maryland. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2014 - The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is signed

The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement established 10 goals and 31 outcomes to restore the Bay, its tributaries and the lands that surround them. All seven jurisdictions of the Chesapeake Bay watershed signed on to the goals of this agreement, which included the pollution limits set in the Chesapeake Bay Total Daily Maximum Load established four years prior. This 2014 agreement was the first agreement to include goals related to climate change, environmental literacy and diversity.

A group of male and female politicians walk down a brick street in downtown Annapolis with the city's capitol building in the background.
Members of the Chesapeake Executive Council walk from the Maryland State House to a signing event for the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. (Photo by Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2016 - Wastewater goals are met a decade early

In 2016, the Chesapeake Bay Program met its goal for reducing wastewater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. A primary factor for this achievement was the use of Biological Nutrient Reduction (BNR) technology, which we began piloting in 1997 at the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C. The partnership began implementing BNR at other plants and now uses it across the watershed, except in certain northern plants where it is too cold for the technology to work.

An outdoor wastewater treatment plant with several bridges and machinery over a large tank of water.
Technological advancements have allowed Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant and other facilities to remove nutrient pollution. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2016 - A groundbreaking land-use dataset is released

The Chesapeake Bay Program greatly advanced its understanding of how land is being used in the watershed when it completed the Chesapeake Bay High-resolution Land Cover Project in 2016. The data set became even more detailed in 2022 with the release of the Very High-Resolution Land Cover and Land Use and Change Data, which provides a 1-meter resolution of land cover and land use in 206 counties across the watershed.

A data image depicts the amount of trees and vegetation verses hard surfaces such as houses and roads using shapes and colors.
Land cover data distinguishes between pervious surfaces like trees and impervious ones like buildings and roads. (Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

2017 - Bay Program launches new method for modeling pollution

Since forming, the Chesapeake Bay Program has used various physical or computer-based models to estimate how factors such as weather, land-use, geography and restoration projects will affect pollution in the Bay. In 2017, we released the sixth phase of our Watershed Model: the Chesapeake Assessment Scenario Tool (CAST). CAST is a landmark tool that jurisdictions across the Bay watershed use to plan their pollution reduction projects. The seventh phase of this model is currently in development.

An aerial view of a river with a dense neighborhood on one side and a forest and farmland on the other side.
Bands of different colored water show varying levels of sediment pollution from upstream sources in the Susquehanna River. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2018 - Bloede Dam removed

After a years-long process, the Bloede Dam on the Patapsco River was finally breached in 2018. The dam had been selected for removal by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Fish Passage Workgroup to allow migratory fish such as American shad and river herring to have better access to spawning grounds. Since 1987, the Chesapeake Bay Program has opened up over 31,000 miles to fish passage within the Bay watershed.

A dam extending across a river as water flows over the side.
The Bloede Dam was one of three major dams removed from the Patapsco River. (Photo by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2020 - Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice are prioritized

In 2020, the Chesapeake Executive Council signed a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) Statement to commit the Chesapeake Bay Program to “equitable, just and inclusive engagement of all communities living throughout the watershed.” The statement commits the partnership to grow the racial and ethnic diversity in the partnership and prioritize DEIJ needs in restoration efforts.

Two Black men tend to a tree that has just been planted in a park.
Urban heat islands disproportionately affect people of color but can be combated by expanding tree canopy. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2021 - Executive Council signs Climate Direction

In 2021, the Chesapeake Executive Council signed a directive that commits the Chesapeake Bay Program to address the increasing threats of climate change in all aspects of the partnership’s work. In particular, Bay Program partners will utilize their world-class scientific, modeling, monitoring and planning capabilities to prioritize the communities, working lands and habitats that are most vulnerable to the risks that a changing climate is bringing to the region.

A man with a neon-green safety jacket wades through a foot of water that has flooded into the city.
The impacts of climate change include sea level rise and more frequent storms, seen in Annapolis. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

2022 - World's largest oyster restoration project completed

In 2022, a workgroup coordinated by the Chesapeake Bay Program completed the world’s largest oyster reef restoration project in the Piankatank River, where 438 acres of healthy oyster reef have been added to the tributary. This milestone is part of a goal from the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that seeks to fully restore oyster habitat in 10 major tributaries—five in Maryland and five in Virginia. So far, oyster habitat has been restored in six of the 10 originally selected tributaries.

In the foreground is a tank of water with oysters in it. In the background is a river and a boat being loaded with oyster shells by a machine.
A clump of oysters pulled from Harris Creek in Maryland is a sign of a healthy restored reef. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

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