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Chesapeake Bay Program rolls out strategy to fight climate change

Photo by Katherine Hafner. The wetlands behind Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach during a Chesapeake Bay Program Executive Council meeting in October 2021.
Photo by Katherine Hafner. The wetlands behind Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach during a Chesapeake Bay Program Executive Council meeting in October 2021.

The Chesapeake Bay Program has released an outline of how it wants to fight climate change in the coming years.

Leaders say impacts like sea level rise, stronger storms and other changes in the water increasingly threaten the decades-long effort to restore the bay.

They now hope to weaken the effects by taking more action to build oyster habitats and urban green space, capture carbon in the earth and more.

The bay program started in the early 1980s and is a massive partnership between nonprofits, academic institutions and local, state and federal governments.

In a 2014 agreement, officials committed to increasing resiliency to withstand changing climate conditions.

But last fall, they said the group needed to do more, including recognizing how severe those conditions have become.

“Without aggressive action to combat climate change, our goal of a healthy bay is under threat,” then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said at the time in Virginia Beach.

He and the rest of the bay program’s executive council vowed to take such actions.

The new federal commitment document lays out what some of those will be.

“We want to minimize the adverse impact of climate change and build more vibrant and resilient communities,” said Martha Shimkin, the program’s deputy director.

The partners are bound together by a common goal – but the actions are voluntary, not required by law, she said.

Even before the council signed last year’s directive, agencies that are part of the program started looking into actions to which they could feasibly commit, she said.

Under an executive order from President Joe Biden last January, federal departments had already been required to develop a climate adaptation plan.

The program’s also received some funding through Biden’s infrastructure act and other recent legislation.

“We have a chance to put our money where our mouth is, to implement on the ground, to make a difference,” Shimkin said.

The Bay program’s new list lays out more than three dozen planned actions broken down by agency, including the Department of Defense, Army Corps of Engineers and National Park Service.

Here are some highlights:

  • Working with underserved communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed was a priority of the program in its original directive. Officials acknowledged that marginalized communities are often more impacted and less equipped to deal with climate change. For example, the Environment Protection Agency said it wants to use infrastructure act funding to build resilience in these communities. The Fish and Wildlife Service pledged to work with underserved areas to turn vacant lots into green spaces like community gardens or tree cover to better absorb heat. The service also aims to help local Native American tribes make their lands more climate-resistant, and lead a pilot study on prioritizing public infrastructure or wildlife habitat needs in at-risk communities.
  • Climate-friendly building: A big focus of the Bay program is to protect people and ecosystems through green infrastructure. That means using natural elements instead of manmade ones for shorelines, expanding wetlands, planting trees along waterways and more.
  • More data and reports: Many agencies agreed to develop new tools for forecasting climate impacts and better report on actions they take to mitigate them. The National Park Service, for instance, aims to do a climate vulnerability assessment of all its coastal park sites in the Bay region. The Department of Defense committed to reporting on the percentage of its installations that have updated their plans to address climate change.
  • Helping wildlife: Officials want to continue and accelerate efforts to restore the local oyster population, expand other habitats and monitor climate change impacts to various fish and other species.
  • Engaging younger people: Several actions aim to either attract people to a career in climate-related conservation or emphasize environmental education for students. That includes allowing interns to be hired directly through the Public Land Corps and having the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conduct climate-focused summer teacher workshops and create a climate data-driven online course.
Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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