New figures from the Bay Program reveal that the region will have to increase the pace of its cleanup by more than threefold from now through the end of the decade if it is to clean up the Chesapeake.

Although officials have known they have a steep climb ahead to meet their 2010 cleanup deadline, the just-released figures—updating cleanup progress through 2002—offer the clearest picture of the magnitude of the job ahead.

If achieved, the goals would slash the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Bay by roughly 50 percent from mid-1980s levels, when the Chesapeake was at its worst.

No one has any illusions that the Bay will return to the “pristine” conditions encountered when Capt. John Smith explored it in 1608.

When Europeans first arrived, the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed was mostly forested. Those trees, along with plants on the forest floor, were stingy with their nutrients, leaking far less into streams and the Bay than is the case today.

Since then, much of the forests have been replaced with farms and cities. And huge amounts of nutrients are imported into the watershed, in the form of fertilizers, food for animals—and food for humans. Tons more comes from the sky in the form of air pollution.

Changes on the landscape have a profound effect upon Chesapeake water quality. The Bay’s watershed covers 64,000 square miles, while the Bay itself covers about 4,500 square miles. That results in a land-to-water ratio of 14–to–1.

All that adds up to huge amounts of nutrients entering the Bay. Scientists estimate that the Bay gets about 7 times as much nitrogen, and 20 times as much phosphorus, as it did prior to European settlement.

Excess nutrients lead to too much algae, which causes a host of problems. The algae form blooms that discolor the water and block sunlight to underwater grasses that provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish, waterfowl and many other other species.

Algae that go unconsumed by fish sink to the bottom where they are decomposed by bacteria in a process that depletes the water of oxygen, causing fish kills and rendering large areas of the Bay unusable by most species.

Large amounts of nutrients also promote the growth of certain algae species over others. Often, those are not the species preferred by predators. As a result, more algae doesn’t necessarily result in more fish food.

While a pristine condition is not attainable, the Bay Program has established goals that would return water quality to levels similar to those seen in the 1950s—just before the Bay’s rapid degradation began.

Cleaning up the Bay has been a regional goal since 1983, when the state-federal Bay Program partnership was formed to restore the nation’s largest estuary using largely voluntary means.

That objective became a legal obligation in the late 1990s when a series of administrative and legal actions resulted in most of the Bay being placed on the EPA’s impaired waters list because much of it, and its tidal tributaries, failed to meet water quality standards.

Under a 1999 court agreement, the states will be required to implement a regulatory cleanup program in 2011 unless the Bay meets water quality standards by then.

In its Chesapeake 2000 agreement, the Bay Program set a goal of getting the Bay off the EPA’s impaired waters list by the end of 2010.

During the three years after 1999, state and federal officials devised new clean water criteria aimed at protecting critical species throughout the Bay. Those criteria are being adopted as new state water quality standards, but will require far greater levels of action than seen in the past.

In fact, the newest estimates for Bay Program computer models show that in the two years since 2000, nitrogen loads to the Bay were reduced by only 7 million additional pounds—or 3.5 million a year. Phosphorus loads remained almost steady.

Part of the reason is that officials have adjusted the figures based on information that showed some earlier reductions that had been claimed were likely overestimated. Nonetheless, the figures show that the rate of action has to increase dramatically.

Nitrogen reductions for 2003 (estimates for which are not yet available) through 2010 would have to average nearly 13 million pounds a year—far greater than the 4-million-pound a year average since 1987.

The story for phosphorus is slightly better: Reductions averaged 500,000 pounds a year since 1987, but must now average more than 800,000 pounds annually through 2010.

By the end of April, the states are to complete plans showing how that will be done.

This report offers an overview of the nutrient and sediment reduction progress to date. It provides a background for how the nutrient reduction goals were set, where nutrients come from and how nutrient reductions are estimated.

It provides the latest available estimates, by basin and land use, of nutrient control progress since 1985. It also offers a look into how nutrient control strategies are being developed, and discusses how—and why—estimates of nutrient reductions are always a work in progress.

A Note of Thanks!

This report was made possible through assistance from the Bay Program’s nutrient and modeling teams which include Sara Brandt, Kate Hopkins, Lewis Linker, Russ Mader, Gary Shenk, Jeff Sweeney, Ping Wang, and the Bay Program’s Nutrient and Modeling Subcommittees.