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Delaware Inland Bays Natl Estuary Pgm

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Delaware Inland Bays National Estuary Program resulted from a 1988 request by the governor of Delaware to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address the declining health of the ecosystem.

The EPA convened a Management Conference to assemble federal, state and local officials and citizens in a collaborative process to focus public action on the ecosystem. It led to a number of near-term steps, including the promulgation of regulations and standards governing water inputs and development within the area of the Inland Bays.

The Management Conference recommended a new state agency which was created by executive order of the governor to oversee and guide environmentally sensitive development. A 1994 state law created the non-profit Center for the Inland Bays (CIB) to oversee and advocate for the full implementation of management plan for the Inland Bays.

The Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) was finalized in 1995 and serves as a tool to prioritize strategies to address the two most pressing stressors to the ecosystem: infiltration of excess nutrients and loss of habitat. Implementation of the CCMP is complicated as it relies on multiple state and local authorities that are constrained by funding and competing priorities.

The CIB also conducts its own public education and outreach efforts, enters into partnerships to advance ecosystem restoration projects and facilitates research and monitoring programs.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Focus on improving the health of the ecosystem.
  • Collaboration: Creation of a priority-oriented plan through a collaborative process involving the public and multiple agencies across government scales.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The Management Conference agreed on the following goals that would form the basis of the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, listed in order of priority:

  • Establish and implement and comprehensive non-point source pollution control program.
  • Protect, restore, and enhance living resources by improving water quality and protecting and enhancing habitat.
  • Develop and implement comprehensive zoning ordinances, laws, and regulations at all levels of government that promote environmentally sound land use.
  • Establish and implement a comprehensive wastewater management program.
  • Develop and implement a ground water management program that protects and improves drinking water supplies.
  • Develop and implement a water use plan.
  • Establish and implement a shoreline protection program that addresses both natural processes and human activities.
  • Coordinate Inland Bays management with existing solid waste, air pollution, and toxics programs.
  • As much as possible, ensure that all public participation, information, and education are a part of planning and management activities related to the Inland Bays.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


  • Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
  • Department of Health and Social Services


  • Sussex County

Key Parties


  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Public Instruction
  • Department of Transportation
  • Delaware State Legislature
  • Division of Air and Waste Management
  • Division of Public Health
  • Division of Soil and Water Conservation
  • Division of Water Resources


  • Sussex Conservation District
  • Sussex County Council
  • Sussex County Engineering Department
  • Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission


  • Multiple academic institutions, including University of Delaware

Program Structure

Initial Structure

In 1988, the Management Conference established the following structure to create and steer a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP):

  • Executive Council: A six-person Executive Council directed the program’s priorities and general direction. It included high-level representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, and Sussex County.
  • Implementation Council: An Implementation Council, representing multiple federal, state and county agencies, and members of the public, operated the program as development continued on the CCMP and assisted setting priorities. It received advice from the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee and the Citizens Advisory Committee.
  • Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee: A Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of scientists from government agencies and academic institutions reviewed and recommended research projects, and provided scientific advice.
  • Citizens Advisory Committee: A Citizens Advisory Committee served as a forum to develop public consensus on issues related to the Inland Bays, and provided another avenue for injecting public comment into the CCMP.

Modified Structure

Passage of the Inland Bays Watershed Enhancement Act in 1994 established the Center for the Inland Bays (CIB) to oversee and facilitate the implementation of the CCMP and other long-term approaches to improving the ecosystem. The Citizens Advisory Committee supported the effort to establish the CIB.

  • Board of Directors: Under the new management structure, the Implementation Council became the board of directors of the CIB and continues to operate.
  • The Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee and Citizens Advisory Committee were maintained, and now provide advice to the board of directors. Both committees meet quarterly. The Citizens Advisory Committee maintains subcommittees on outreach, and public policy.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

There have been concerns about the health of the Inland Bays had for two decades, despite continuing despite efforts to conserve the region’s resources.

In 1984, a Governor’s Inland Bays Task Force issued a report that offered conservation recommendations that led to the designation of the Delaware Inland Bays National Estuary Program in 1988.

The task force’s report was prompted by the advisory council to the University of Delaware’s Sea Grant Program. Even though many of the recommendations were being carried out, population growth was projected to continue and agricultural practices were not following the most environmentally sound methods in many places. In addition, the Inland Bays region lacked comprehensive planning for sewage treatment and shoreline preservation.

In 1987, Congress established the National Estuary Program (NEP) to improve the quality of estuaries of national importance. The NEP provides funding and coordination by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to focus the attention of all levels of government and the public on identifying, through a collaborative process, threats to the ecosystem and practicable solutions. Delaware officials believed the additional funding and attention of federal agencies was crucial in preserving the health of the ecosystem.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Inland Bays region of Delaware consists of three interconnected bodies of water: the Indian River Bay, Little Assawoman Bay and Rehoboth Bay.

  • Rehoboth and Little Assawoman bays are estuaries built on sand bars.
  • Indian Riveris a drowned river valley.

The shallow waters of the Inland Bays provide highly productive habitats for finfish, shellfish and waterfowl. Hard clams and blue crabs attract commercial and recreational fishers. Of the 30 square miles of the Inland Bays classified as shellfish waters, 19 square miles have been approved for shellfishing.

Recreation and tourism in the Inland Bays region are vital to the economy and rely on a healthy ecosystem and favorable water quality. On summer weekends, the region’s population can more than double with visitor and tourists.

These shallow waters are highly sensitive to environmental stressors. Fresh water enters from groundwater, runoff from land and tributaries. Salt water from the Atlantic enters through several inlets and canals. The Inland Bays are poorly flushed, containing multiple dead-end lagoons. Water quality can vary greatly within the bays.


A rapid increase in population and intensive agricultural use threatens the health of the ecosystem in the watershed. 

  • Population growth: The population of Sussex County, which encompasses the Inland Bays, has experienced rapid growth and expands even more as tourists visit the area to enjoy the beaches and water-related recreational activities. The pressure from this growing population has strained municipal infrastructure and poorly treated wastewater enters the bays through septic systems. Development practices in the region were not environmentally sound and more than 2,000 acres of tidal wetlands had been lost by the 1990s due to development and dredging of the waterways.
  • Agriculture: Agricultural use is highly concentrated within the Inland Bays watershed. Eighty-three million chickens were produced by poultry farms annually in the 1990s. More than 90,000 tons of nutrient-rich manure was produced each year. Runoff from agricultural lands contributed to nitrogen loads within the Inland Bays.


Major Strategies

In addition to monitoring and advocating for the implementation of the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan by the relevant authorities, the Center for the Inland Bays (CIB):

  • Conducts environmental restoration projects, demonstrations of best practices in agriculture, classroom environmental education and public awareness efforts, occasionally in partnership with government or academic institutions. In one example, CIB assisted the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in developing pollution-control strategies to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the bays through the organization of stakeholders into a Tributary Action Team.
  • Provides advocacy for policies to limit pollution and environmental degradation.
  • Manages a 150-acre nature preserve which was given to Sussex County for use in environmental education activities.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation


Monitoring of the ecosystem is conducted by a variety of entities, including the Center for the Inland Bays (CIB), which has monitored invasive species, algal blooms, and horseshoe crabs. Water quality monitoring is conducted by the University of Delaware Citizen Monitoring Program, which uses volunteers to sample water quality at more than 30 sites. Additional sampling is conducted by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Assessment and Evaluation

In a 2004 report, CIB published a list of Delaware Inland Bays’ Environmental Indicators which described the vital statistics that will be measured in the Inland Bays. The Science and Technical Advisory Committee selected indicators that would meet the following criteria:

  • Evaluate progress in the Inland Bays restoration effort.
  • Monitor environmental condition and environmental response to restoration efforts.
  • Provide information needed to establish restoration goals.
  • Regularly inform and involve the public in achieving the restoration goals.
  • Make detailed information and reference data available to others.



Ecosystem Changes

Ecosystem changes are being measured and the information will be useful to policy-makers and managers. Some trends are encouraging, but habitat loss and development, in particular, will continue to present serious challenges to the health of the ecosystem.

The environmental indicators selected for monitoring by the Center for the Inland Bays (CIB) in 2004 were evaluated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as part of a larger National Estuary Program Coastal Condition Report. “These indicators should provide a comprehensive picture of the environmental and human components of the system over time,” the report concluded. It rated the overall condition of the estuary as fair, according to criteria developed by the National Coastal Assessment, though it relied on data gathered in 2000 and 2001.

Some of the CIB’s indicators show promise. Landings of hard clams, the most important commercial fishery, increased in recent years, though landings may be correlated with an increase in effort to catch clams. Still, a large percentage of the landed clams have been of a smaller size, indicating that improved water quality has facilitated the growth of the clam population in recent years. Additionally, although recreational fishers are making more trips in the bays, the number of fish being caught per trip has remained constant. This indicates the ecosystem can sustain the current level of fishing.

However, the population of Sussex County increased more than 38 percent from 1990 to 2000, and was expected to continue increasing. The amount of urbanized land in the watershed also increased. Although point sources of pollution are being eliminated, direct discharges of nitrogen increased 32 percent between 1990 and 2000.

Regulatory Accomplishments

Prior to the creation of the Delaware Inland Bays National Estuary Program, the region lacked regulatory controls on many aspects of development and land use within the watershed. In 1999, the Delaware Nutrient Management Law was enacted which increased the amount of agricultural acreage under mandatory planning to reduce the over-application of fertilizer. Non-point sources, such as runoff from agricultural land, constitute the largest contributors to nutrient loading in the bays. In addition, effluent releases from point sources of pollution are now prohibited. Among the other regulatory devices, land-use requirements for environmentally sensitive areas and controls on the expansion of marinas also were developed.

Priority-Setting of Actionable Projects

Development of the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan established community-based priorities for various federal, state and local authorities to implement that have resulted in measurable accomplishments. For instance, more than 13,000 septic systems have been replaced by centralized public sewer systems since 1993. Replacement of septic systems will continue.

Website Links

Delaware Center for the Inland Bays:

National Estuary Program: