An action plan to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna River watershed, including some activities that focus on the impact of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, is under way by federal officials.

The $491 million strategy for fiscal year 2011, released last week, was established by President Obama in May 2009 under Executive Order 13508. Federal officials, who will use the plan in the coming fiscal year, are focused on water quality, habitat, fish and wildlife, as well as land and public access.

"This action plan lays the groundwork for how the Department of Interior [DOI] will invest in restoring the health of the wildlife, fish and shellfish, and habitats of the Chesapeake watershed -- from its headwaters to the estuary," said Will Shafroth, deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Our on-the-ground efforts with other federal agencies, states, local communities and stakeholders will help to restore and protect this national treasure."

The 173-page action plan "conveys the full scope of on-the-ground and in-the-water efforts the federal government will undertake between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30, 2011 in the Chesapeake Bay watershed."

Among other things the plan calls for monitoring the Susquehanna River for "potential impacts" of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The watershed serves parts of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, DC.

Under the plan, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will expand water sampling and work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to summarize how toxic contaminants "pose threats to fish and wildlife" in the bay and its watershed.

"EPA will work with DOI, states and stakeholders to develop strategies for reducing toxic contaminants by 2015," the plan noted. "USGS and FWS will work with EPA to assess the potential impacts of Marcellus Shale gas extraction on streams and habitats...Some of these actions already have reduced discharges to the bay and its tributary waters. This work will be integrated with the control strategies to be developed by 2015."

According to the strategy, efforts to address "new threats" to the watershed in 2011 and 2012 include systemic watershed monitoring and assessment to determine the extent and sources of "emerging contaminants and disease on the health of fish and wildlife health, and potential impacts of new threats from natural gas development" with a focus on the Marcellus Shale formation.