The Chesapeake Bay Foundation downgraded the health of the nation’s largest estuary Monday from a C-minus to a D-plus, blaming the dip in its latest report card on increased pollution from extraordinary amounts of rainfall in 2018.
“The Bay suffered a massive assault in 2018,” said CBF President Will Baker. Chronically wet weather throughout the six-state watershed washed more water-fouling nutrients into the Bay, reversing what had been several years of sustained gains in reducing pollution.
Only two years ago, the Annapolis-based environmental group had bumped the Bay’s health grade up to C-minus, declaring the estuary to be in the best shape since it began issuing periodic report cards in 1998.
But nitrogen and phosphorus pollution rose significantly in 2018 because of record rainfall, the group said. Water clarity — which had improved in places in recent years — declined from the clouds of sediment that washed into the Chesapeake, as well as from algae blooms fed by the influx of nutrients.
The foundation’s report card assessed the Bay’s condition by evaluating 13 indicators of pollution, habitat and fisheries. Besides noting worsening pollution in 2018, the group’s assessment also noted a further decline in the diminished stock of American shad in the Chesapeake, marked by record-low spawning runs of the migratory fish in the Susquehanna and Pamunkey rivers.
While pollution worsened in 2018, the group found that other indicators of the Chesapeake’s ecological health held steady, or even improved. It credited years of cleanup and restoration efforts for that stability.
Underwater grasses, which had rebounded to cover more than 100,000 acres of Bay bottom in 2017, suffered some dieback in places last year, said CBF senior scientist Beth McGee, but appeared overall to have withstood the flood of nutrients and sediment. Likewise, the 64,000-mile watershed saw a minor gain in protected resource lands in 2018, while the stock of forested stream buffers and wetlands remained stable.
“The good news,” Baker said, “is there are signs the Bay is developing a resilience that may help it overcome long-term damage caused by records storms and rainfall which dumped polluted runoff into our waters.”
Even so, Baker warned that the Bay’s recovery remains fragile, adding that “efforts to save the Bay are facing some of the most serious challenges we’ve ever seen.” In particular, he cited the threats of climate change, rollbacks of federal environmental protections and the failure of watershed states — Pennsylvania, in particular — to follow through on cleanup pledges.
The record rains of 2018 may mark a new normal, Baker warned, as global climate change alters weather patterns. He said the increased runoff that’s likely to result can only be dealt with if watershed states follow through on pledges to abide by the “pollution diet” developed for the Chesapeake in 2010 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Baker noted that half of the fresh water entering the Bay comes from the Susquehanna. The bulk of the river’s watershed is in Pennsylvania, which is lagging badly in fulfilling its cleanup obligations under the Bay pollution diet.
“The commonwealth is actually developing a good science-based plan as to how to move forward, but there’s simply no evidence that they have the political will to fund it,” Baker said. In the past few years, at least a couple of proposals have been made to generate or corral the funding needed for cleanup efforts, but they’ve not been acted on by legislators. Baker said the state needs a dedicated source of funding to clean up 19,000 miles of impaired streams and rivers, as well as the Bay downstream.
Baker then took aim at the Trump administration, which has moved to review, reduce or even remove a number of environmental regulations aimed at curtailing air and water pollution. And he noted that Trump has disputed evidence compiled by his own administration’s agencies that climate change is already being felt across the nation.
“Trump’s anti-climate policies must be stopped,” he said.
This is a critical time for the Bay, Baker said, referring to a long-running cleanup effort that is midway to a 2025 deadline for putting in place all the measures needed to restore its water quality.
“We have a choice,” he concluded. Either stick with the cleanup plans developed with scientific guidance, and do what’s needed to combat and cope with climate change, Baker said, or risk losing momentum to inaction or even rollbacks by state or federal governments.
(As originally posted, the story incorrectly reported the Bay's health grade in 2017. The Bay Journal regrets the error.)