Measured on a 100-point scale, the Chesapeake Bay is only 38 percent of the way toward meeting its water quality and habitat goals, according to latest annual assessment from the state-federal Bay Program partnership.

Overall, the 2008 report found very little change from 2007 conditions.

"Despite small successes in certain parts of the ecosystem and specific geographic areas, the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay did not improve in 2008," summed up the report. "The Bay continues to have poor water quality, degraded habitats and low populations of many species of fish and shellfish."

The report contained some bright spots-the amount of underwater grasses sharply increased-but key indicators were far from healthy levels: Just 16 percent of the Bay met goals for dissolved oxygen, while 14 percent met water clarity goals.

But the overriding message was the same. "The sobering data in this report reflect only marginal shifts from last year's results," Jeff Lape, director of the EPA's Bay Program Office, said in the report's introduction. He said it "affirms the need to take bolder actions" to improve the Bay.

There are signs that might be starting to happen:

  • The Chesapeake Executive Council-the top policy-making group for the Bay cleanup effort-is scheduled to meet in May. At that time, it is expected to set a new cleanup deadline, as well as the first in a series of measurable two-year milestones to help ensure actions are on a pace to meet that goal.
  • EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has named a special adviser specifically to make recommendations to her about how to make greater progress on the Bay. It's the first time an EPA administrator has created such a position for the Chesapeake.
  • The Bay Program will soon name an independent, external evaluator to assess the effectiveness of its actions.
  • A record $23 million directed specifically to the Bay watershed was released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for this year. It was the first installment of a four-year, $188 million program approved in the 2008 Farm Bill to help the region's farmers curb nutrient and sediment runoff.
  • The federal stimulus bill signed by President Obama provides $878 million in the EPA's Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund to the six states that include the Bay watershed over the next two years. That's by far the largest infusion of cash for that program, which helps fund wastewater treatment plant upgrades and other water quality improvements.

"From the White House to state houses to town halls, commitments are being made to take strong actions to stem pollution impacting the Bay and its tributaries," Lape said.

It's the first time since 2006, when the Bay Program started issuing annual reports on Chesapeake health and restoration efforts, that it sought to sum up the estuary's condition in a single number.

The 38 percent figure was the average of three indicators reflecting the status of water quality, habitats, and fish and shellfish.

Overall, the Bay met 21 percent of its water quality goals, as measures of water clarity, dissolved oxygen and algae blooms remained far from what are considered healthy levels.

Habitats met 45 percent of their goal, driven in part by a solid increase in the amount of underwater grasses last year.

Fish and Shellfish scored 48 percent, a slight overall decrease caused largely by a decline in the blue crab population.

The health of the waterways feeding the Bay was not much better, the report showed. An analysis of 3,291 sampling sites on streams throughout the watershed found that 1,632 were in very poor or poor condition, while 1,056 were in good or excellent condition.

The restoration portion of the report indicated that progress was being made to reduce nutrient pollution from farms and wastewater treatment plants, but those efforts were being offset to some degree by population growth and increased development.

The primary problem affecting Bay water quality is the excess amounts of nutrients that cause algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching the underwater grass beds that provide critical habitat for juvenile crabs, fish and waterfowl. When the algae die, they decompose in a process that depletes the water of oxygen. Sediment clouds the water and, when it settles, buries bottom-dwelling organisms.

The report shows how far the Bay is away from meeting its nutrient goals.

Freshwater flows from rivers into the Bay have been near their long-term average during the last four years-that's the first time there have been four consecutive years in the "normal" range since the 1950s, according to figures from the U.S. Geological Survey.

But the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay during those four years has averaged a bit more than 300 pounds annually. According to the Bay Program's computer models, the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay during "average" flow years must be reduced to about 175 million pounds to meet water quality goals.

"The nitrogen levels are almost twice where we need to be at," said Scott Phillips, USGS Chesapeake Bay coordinator.

Right now, the primary factor affecting the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay is river flow, which is influenced by the amount of rain washing nitrogen off farms, lawns and other areas each year.

Changes in the river flow are directly related to changes in Bay nitrogen levels.

For example, total freshwater flows into the Bay averaged 37.5 billion gallons per day in 2008. That was 3.5 bgd less than 2007-a bit less than a 10 percent decline. Similarly, the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay in 2008 was 291 million pounds, or 27 million pounds less than 2007-also a bit less than a 10 percent drop.

Officials say weather will continue to be the prime influence on water quality until enough nutrient reductions are made to separate that tight linkage.

"We still haven't taken enough nutrients out to really break away from that weather influence," said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA's Bay Program Office. "That's one of the things we need to see before there is a response in dissolved oxygen, water clarity or algae.

"Mother Nature continues to tell us we haven't put the Bay on enough of a nutrient diet."

The story for phosphorus was somewhat better. The report estimated that 13.8 million pounds of phosphorus reached the Bay last year, a bit less than in 2007, and near the 12.8 million pound goal.

Efforts to control phosphorus have been more effective than those to control nitrogen over the past two decades. But it's also a reflection of a fewer number of storms in recent years. While nitrogen flows are related to total rainfall, about 80 percent of the phosphorus reaching the Bay is bound to sediment, which is mostly moved during intense storms.

"We just haven't had the intensity of storm events to move it down the watershed," Phillips said.

The report, "Bay Barometer: A Health and Restoration Assessment of the Chesapeake Bay and Watershed," is available on the Bay Program's website, www.chesapeakebay.net.

Key Indicators Of Bay Health

To determine ecosystem health, "Bay Barometer: A Health and Restoration Assessment of the Chesapeake Bay" evaluates 13 indicators of water quality, habitats and key fish and shellfish species:

Water Quality

  • Dissolved Oxygen: Species living in various parts of the Bay need different amounts of dissolved oxygen to survive. Worms living in bottom sediment need small amounts of oxygen, while striped bass living near the surface need much higher concentrations. Data from 2006-2008 indicate that only 16 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries contained enough oxygen to support species that should be found in different habitats. That was a 4 percent improvement over last year's report.
  • Water Clarity: Clear water is essential for underwater grasses to survive, and for fish and other predators to be able to find their prey. Last year, 14 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters met or exceeded thresholds for water clarity. That was a slight increase from 12 percent the previous year.
  • Chlorophyll a: This is a measure of algae near the surface of the Chesapeake Bay. Some algae is important to fuel the Bay's food web, but excess concentrations block sunlight to underwater grasses, contribute to low dissolved oxygen concentrations and can lead to blooms of harmful algae species. In 2008, 27 percent of the Bay had chlorophyll a concentrations that were below thresholds. That was a 1 percent improvement from 2007.
  • Chemical Contaminants: In 2008, 28 percent of the Chesapeake Bay's waters are free of impairments caused by toxic pollutants such as excessive concentrations in sediments or high enough concentrations in fish tissue to lead to consumption advisories. That is a 5 percent decrease from 2007.

Habitats

  • Bay Grasses: The Chesapeake had about 76,861 acres of underwater grasses in 2008, or 42 percent of the 185,000 acre restoration goal. That was an increase from 35 percent the previous year. Grass beds are one of the most important parts of the Bay ecosystem, helping to filter the water and providing habitat for a host of species, from juvenile blue crabs to waterfowl.
  • Bottom Habitat: About 42 percent of the bottom areas of the Bay supported healthy communities of benthic organisms such as worms and clams. That was a slight drop from 43 percent in 2007. Because these organisms have only a limited ability to move, their health is considered a good indictor of environmental conditions.
  • Phytoplankton: A healthy mix of algal species is important for the Bay's food web, while blooms dominated by a single species can be harmful. Data from 2008 indicate that 53 percent of the Bay's phytoplankton communities were considered healthy. That was a decrease of 2 percent from the previous year.
  • Wetlands: As of 2005, the Chesapeake Bay had an estimated 283,946 acres of tidal wetlands, a decline of 2,600 acres from a decade earlier. Tidal wetlands are important habitats, and also help to absorb runoff and filter pollutants. They are threatened by sea level rise, climate change, shoreline development and invasive species. The Bay Program does not have a tidal wetland goal; this indicator is used to assess trends.

Fish & Shellfish

  • Blue Crabs: The 2008 blue crab population was about 60 percent of the 200 million blue crab interim target. That was a decrease from 78 percent the previous year. Overall abundance continues to be low, and the stock has not shown signs of rebounding. They are the Bay's most valuable commercial species today.
  • Striped Bass: Rockfish continue to exceed the restoration goal, which is to have a spawning stock biomass equal to the averages of 1960-1971. But the biomass has trended downward for the last few years, and concerns remain about the species' health because of the high prevalence of mycobacteriosis, a chronic wasting disease, among the population.
  • Oysters: The region has achieved 9 percent of its goal of a tenfold increase in oyster populations, measured from a 1994 baseline. That represents no significant change from the Baywide average since 1994. Oysters are a critical species because they help to filter the water and provide habitat for a host of other species. Their populations are near historic lows because of overharvesting, disease and poor water quality.
  • Shad: Twenty-three percent of the Baywide shad restoration goal has been achieved, an increase of 1 percent from 2007. The figure is based on the estimated shad spawning stock in the James, York, Potomac and Susquehanna rivers, although the increase is driven by improvements in the Potomac River stock. Shad once supported the most valuable commercial fishery in the Bay.
  • Menhaden: The number of juvenile menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay has been below average for the last 15 years. Menhaden are an important source of food for larger fish such as striped bass, and are also valued for their ability to filter the water. At present, the Bay Program does not have a goal for menhaden.