The Chesapeake Bay is showing signs that decades of work are starting to pump new life into the nation’s largest estuary, according to a new report, though it also showed worrisome trends for forest buffers and wetlands — two elements considered critical to any long-term recovery.
The Bay Barometer, released Feb. 1 by the state-federal Bay Program partnership, largely echoed the positive movement shown in recent report cards from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, suggesting that cleanup efforts were starting to pay off with expanded underwater grass beds, clearer water and a smaller oxygen-starved “dead zone.”
“Clearly, progress is being made and we are starting to see the ecosystem response from the actions that we’ve taken,” said Nick DiPasquale, director of the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office.
Most of the information in the Barometer reflects conditions in 2015, and had previously been released, but the annual report brings the data together in a single overview.
The analysis showed that the actual amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment entering the Bay decreased sharply in 2015. Although part of that was attributable to below-average precipitation, which flushed fewer water-fouling nutrients off the land, officials said decreased rainfall alone did not account for the widespread improvements.
“We are seeing clear, statistically significant signs of improvement, particularly in the shrinking volume of the part of the Bay that has no oxygen,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environment Science.
Overall, the amount of the Bay and its tidal tributaries meeting water quality goals for oxygen, clarity and chlorophyll a increased 10 percent in 2015. Still, only 37 percent of that area fully met water quality goals.
Fewer nutrients also translated into better growing conditions for underwater grasses, one of the Chesapeake’s most critical habitats, which reached a record-high 92,315 acres in 2015 — nearly half of the Baywide goal of 185,000 acres.
While the Bay is showing positive signs, Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, cautioned that “the recovery is fragile. You have seen this all over the world, where people — not just on conservation issues, but on anything, really — think the job is done before it is. And you will see declines start again.”
He noted that Lake Erie was considered saved in the 1980s after having once been declared dead, but has since deteriorated and now “may be worse than ever.”
The data in the new report does have worrying signs, particularly regarding wetlands and streamside forest buffers, where restoration efforts have largely stalled. In 2015, just 64 miles of forest buffers were planted — far short of the 900-mile-a-year goal, and the lowest level in the last 16 years.
Likewise, just 7,623 acres of wetlands were created or re-established since 2010 — that’s less than one-tenth of what’s needed to meet the 83,000-acre goal set for 2025.
Baker called the forest buffer and wetland trends “very, very disappointing,” and Boesch warned that the overall Bay restoration effort won’t succeed if those efforts don’t get on track.
Streamside buffers and wetlands remove large amounts of nutrients and provide important habitats. They also help to slow runoff, giving water a chance to sink into the ground instead of being flushed quickly downstream — something expected to become increasingly important in the future as climate change is expected to cause more intense storms and more flooding.
“We won’t accomplish what we set out to do by 2025 without a significant improvement in the ‘kidneys’ of the system — those parts of the system like riparian zones that not only trap nutrients and sediments, but also provide resilience in terms of runoff and water storage,” Boesch said. “That is going to be so critical to get us to the end point that we want to achieve.”
Among other highlights in the report:
- Between 2010 and 2015, the number of public access sites along the Bay and its tributaries increased by 108 — more than a third of the sites needed to reach the goal of 300 new access sites by 2025. The total number of access sites in the Bay watershed is 1,247. Improving access to waterways is considered an important way to boost public support for their protection.
- Since 2010, approximately 1 million acres of land in the watershed have been permanently protected from development. That is half of the goal of 2 million additional protected acres by 2025, and brings the total amount of protected acreage in the watershed to 8.8 million acres. Increased development, and the “impervious” surfaces associated with it, poses one of the biggest threats to stream health throughout the watershed.
- A new measure of Bay Program diversity showed it was lagging. According to a recent survey conducted by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay cited in the report, only about 13 percent of the people in leadership positions in committees, workgroups and other various panels were non-white. In contrast, 35 percent of the watershed population is nonwhite, the report said. The Bay Program has been striving to have its makeup better reflect the diversity of the watershed to help broaden support for restoration efforts.
- From 2012 through 2015, new fish passages and dam removals opened 817 miles of river to migrating fish, including almost 300 miles in Virginia and more than 500 miles in Pennsylvania. Altogether, almost 82 percent of the Bay Program goal of opening 1,000 addition miles of river by 2025 has been achieved.
The full Bay Barometer can be found at chesapeakebay.net/documents/2015-2016_Bay_Barometer.pdf.