The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has taken the pulse again of the nation’s largest estuary, and found its health has improved a bit, though it’s still far from out of the woods.
The Annapolis-based environmental group released its latest “State of the Bay” report on Thursday, declaring that the Chesapeake is in better shape overall now than at any time since the foundation began issuing regular updates in 1998.
The Bay earned a cumulative score of 34 out of 100 in the foundation’s evaluation of conditions in three basic categories — pollution, habitat and fisheries. That score, two points above the last rating in 2014, was good enough to nudge the Chesapeake’s health to a higher letter grade on CBF’s A through F scale.
“We’re out of the D column and into the C’s,” Foundation President Will Baker said. “A C-minus, but that’s still a C.”
Foundation scientists judged 9 of the 13 indicators they checked had improved, as had the cumulative scores in each of the three categories. Underwater grasses, rockfish, oysters, and shad made modest progress, while blue crabs showed dramatic gains in the past two years, the report said.
Most water-quality indicators showed improvement, including nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, clarity and dissolved oxygen. Only toxic contaminants remained unchanged.
In habitat, though, protection of wetlands and other resource lands didn’t improve, in the foundation’s estimation, while state efforts to protect water quality with stream buffers actually lost ground.
“Despite federal and state commitments, forest buffer plantings were the lowest in the last 16 years,” the report said. The states planted only about 440 streamside acres, compared with a goal of 14,000 acres annually. The report called that lack of progress “alarming.”
And as Virginia Public Radio reporter Pamela D’Angelo noted, the scores given some water-quality indicators in the latest report are not significantly better than they were in the foundation’s first “State of the Bay” report in 1998. Baker attributed that to the continuing “pressures” on the estuary from population growth and development.
Nevertheless, the foundation president made a point of celebrating the big picture in a telephone press conference, calling the overall news about the Bay’s status “very good.” He said the latest report made him feel better than he has in a long time about the Chesapeake’s future, and he’s been president of the environmental group for 35 of its 50 years.
For much of the past two decades, the foundation’s rating of the Bay’s health seemed stuck in the high 20s inching up a point or two, only to drop back.
Then, in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directed the six Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia to take steps by 2025 to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution by 20 to 25 percent.
Baker credited the Baywide “total maximum daily load,” which the foundation calls a “clean water blueprint,” for driving the improvements seen in the last six years. But he warned that those gains are fragile and could easily be lost if the increased pollution reduction efforts of the states and federal government are not maintained.
“The Bay is not saved yet,” Baker said. “Our score keeps the Bay in the dangerously out of balance zone … and it shows us how much more needs to be done.”
Baker noted that Pennsylvania has lagged badly behind other watershed states in its pollution reductions, but he said the Keystone State has made some progress lately. Now, he said, it must “double down” on its efforts to catch up.
Some worry that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, given remarks he’s made about EPA, may throttle back federal involvement in the Bay restoration effort.
Without specifically acknowledging those concerns, Baker said the federal government has been a “critical partner” to the states in addressing pollution issues that extend beyond any jurisdiction’s borders.
“We’re very hopeful that will continue; we’re optimistic,” he said. And if it doesn’t, he said the foundation and others would be “strong advocates” for why the federal government should stay as involved.