It's just about the end of another year, my fourth as director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, so it's a good time to take stock. The key questions are, how's the Bay doing, and is anything we're doing having any impact?
We should all feel pretty good about the answers, because things are looking a bit better on the ground and in the water. In the case of nutrient reductions, which is the focus of much of our effort, the evidence is becoming clear that where we take decisive action we get results. When we look Baywide, it is difficult to see trends because the ecosystem is so huge and there are so many forces at work. It's like asking how's the traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. The overall picture is not very informative; what counts is what's going on between exits 7 and 9, where you are at the moment. And of course, if there's a disastrous backup somewhere ahead you'd like to know.
And so it is with the Bay. The interesting results are those we can relate to. We know, for example, that we have significantly reduced phosphorous loadings to our rivers, and that phosphorous is the limiting nutrient in predominantly fresh water areas - the rivers and the upper Bay. And when we look at those areas we see that they correspond to those parts of the Bay system where chlorophyll A levels have dropped.
When we look at nitrogen, the picture is even clearer. The main ways we are reducing nitrogen loadings are by removing nitrogen from sewage treatment plants, and by reducing applications on farmlands. The former gives immediate results, while the latter has a built-in time delay related to ground water discharge rates to streams. If we take a river like the Patuxent, which is dominated by discharges from treatment plants, and we install nitrogen removal, then we should see reduced loadings of nitrogen from the Patuxent. And that is in fact the case, with nitrogen down by more than one-half in some parts of the river.
All this can be seen despite the near-record influxes of nutrients from spring rains and snowmelt in 1993 and 1994. Given the low flows of spring 1995 and the subsequent drought, there has been a lot of interest in how the Bay would respond this year. Preliminary data show an interesting pattern, with the spring algal blooms located far to the north of their normal location, and widespread but less damaging midsummer blooms resulting from low flows all over the Bay. In early summer, there is also a notable set of blooms that seem related to upstream floods in the Virginia rivers.
What can we conclude from all this? First of all, we can have a beneficial impact on the Bay. But second, to do this takes concerted action. We have actually begun to see reduced loadings from three rivers - the Susquehanna, the Potomac and the Patuxent - which comprise more than three quarters of the fresh water entering the Bay. But we must keep making progress to reduce agricultural and other sources of runoff and to get a better handle on groundwater lag time. And time is beginning to run out on building the nitrogen removal facilities to be on-line in time to help meet the year 2000 reduction goals.
Finally, we can't forget about the air, which is the source of more than one-quarter of the nitrogen. Current attacks on automobile control technologies and powerplant emissions controls will make the job that much harder, if they are successful. It isn't yet time to sound the alarm, but if we don't get moving on more treatment plants and we don't win some Clean Air battles, all the farmers in the watershed doing all they can will not alone be able to get us to our goals.
Turning to the issue of toxics in the Bay, this has been the first year of implementation for the comprehensive Basinwide Toxics Prevention and Reduction Strategy. While this has given us plenty of goals and deadlines to work toward, as often happens in the real world, things take longer than we had predicted. So while there continues to be broad support for a new, voluntary pollution reduction program with industry and for the Regional Action Plans to deal with polluted harbors in Baltimore, the Elizabeth River and the Anacostia, the process of building consensus has gone on past our proposed timelines. But there is a strong sense that it is worth the extra time to do it right and to get the needed buy-in. So even the impatient among us are willing to give it a bit longer.
One reason for this willingness is that we continue to make progress in reducing toxic discharges from industries and other sources in the Bay watershed. The latest figures from the Toxics Release Inventory show overall reductions in excess of 50 percent over the most recent five years. For some toxics of particular concern, the numbers are even higher. The ominous element of the toxics story is that the overwhelming part of the remaining toxic releases are into the air. So if we continue to see efforts to weaken the implementation of the Clean Air Act, we could lose the leverage we need to attack the toxics problem where we can get the best and most cost-effective results.
Progress toward restoring the fish and other living resources of the Bay this year has been mixed. Striped bass continue to look good, and shad had a good year, although most of the Bay's shad now appear to be from stocking programs rather than natural recruitment. But oyster harvests stayed low and a drop-off in take of blue crab caused both Maryland and Virginia to take action to protect the stocks from overharvesting.
The data on the acreage of underwater grasses is still being compiled for 1995, but early indications are that the grassbeds continued at about 1994 levels, showing resiliency in the face of the heavy spring nutrient influxes of '93 and '94. What was new this year was data showing more definitively than ever before the importance of grassbeds as habitat for crabs.
And much progress was made by the scientific community to show the interactions of water quality and living species, including improved understanding of biofeedback loops. These relationships are even more important as the Bay's water quality improves and attention turns to fisheries management as an increasingly important factor in the recovery of the living resources of the Bay.
So all in all, it has been another "unusual year on the Bay." What is beginning to dawn on me is that every year seems to be an anomaly in some way. And so perhaps it must be in a system as complicated as our watershed. After two years of near-record spring rushes of nutrient-laden rivers into our Bay, last year there was little snow to melt, little rain in the spring, and a drought for much on the summer. And in none of these years were we hit by a hurricane, or a meteor, although there was a threatened Disneyland. Is it any wonder we sometimes have trouble measuring the signals of progress?
Notes from Bayside is written monthly by Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.