CBF determines Chesapeake Bay’s health as a ‘D+’
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Chesapeake Bay’s health received a grade of a D+ on its yearly report card last week, leaving it essentially unchanged from its last evaluation in 2018.
Though the Bay’s pollution levels improved, the health of its rockfish population fell significantly, keeping the Bay’s overall grade static. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has released the yearly report since 1998, also singled out Pennsylvania for its insufficient management of agricultural runoff.
“The Chesapeake Bay system is still dangerously out of balance,” said Will Baker, foundation president.
New York has also fallen short, Baker said. The report suggested Pennsylvania, which has the biggest pollution gap to close, start an agricultural cost-share program to help farmers. All states within the Bay watershed face a 2025 deadline to meet goals set by the federal government’s Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. The program requires the Bay to score at least a 40 on a 100-point scale in overall health. It stands at 32 now. (One hundred points, the eventual goal, would indicate the pristine conditions that Captain John Smith described when he sailed into the Bay in the 1600s.) It’s taken nearly four decades of regulation to boost the Bay’s health from its first score of 23 in 1983.
“If Pennsylvania does not meet its obligations… there is no doubt that the Chesapeake Bay will never be saved,” Baker said.
There was some positive news, however. The Bay’s pollution ratings did improve slightly in the area of nitrogen and phosphorus, of which farmers are a key producer. (Still, both nutrient levels received grades of F and D respectively.) Below-average precipitation is one major reason for the improvement, but nutrient management programs are likely another, the foundation said.
“Our pollution reduction efforts are also making a difference here as well,” said Beth McGee, the foundation’s director of science and agricultural policy.
Regionally, all states have done a “fabulous” job upgrading wastewater treatment plants, she said, but remain behind in reducing runoff from agriculture and urban and suburban land. Climate change is also a looming threat, she said. More frequent and powerful storms produce more runoff into regional waterways and the Bay, and as regional waters warm, they will hold less oxygen.
Low oxygen levels can lead to “dead zones” in the water that make it difficult for aquatic life to survive. Due to those two factors, McGee said reduction efforts may need to be increased by 10 percent to meet the Bay’s 2025 goals.
The foundation also expressed frustration with the Trump administration for reversing dozens of clean-air and water regulations, including loosening restrictions on coal-fired power plants. The lack of enforcement jeopardizes the restoration effort, Baker said.
“Air pollution is absolutely correlated to water pollution,” he said. Nearly a third of the nitrogen in the Bay was initially airborne.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, urged the Environmental Protection Agency to reemphasize enforcement under President-elect Joe Biden.
“The Trump Administration has refused to hold Pennsylvania more accountable for failing to meet their pollution reduction targets under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Everyone needs to work together and I look forward to working with the incoming Biden Administration EPA to meet our mutual goals of Clean Water in the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.”
The strongest sectors of the Bay’s health include forested buffers and blue crabs, which received B and B+ grades respectively. Water clarity and underwater grasses are still recovering from record-setting rains in 2018 and 2019.
The report also emphasized that maintaining well-managed farmland will be critical to meeting the Bay’s goals. The amount of protected land, such as forest and farmland, increased in all three states in 2019.
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