Drought-related water quality improvements were offset by increased concerns about blue crabs and new data showing increased toxics discharges, causing the Bay’s overall condition to remain unchanged in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual assessment.
The score of 27 on a 100-point scale is the same ranking the environmental group gave the Bay five years ago when it began issuing its “state of the Bay” report.
“The inescapable conclusion when you read the science is that the Bay hasn’t changed,” said CBF President Will Baker, who called on the Bay states to step up efforts to control nutrients. “A lot of what apparently are being called improvements in the Bay are simply model projections,” he said. “But in terms of the real time data, the monitoring data, there is really not much change.”
To come up with its score, the CBF compares the current status of 13 indicators with what their condition is thought to have been prior to European settlement. It then averages those scores together to come up with the overall index. A perfect 100 score would represent a “pristine” Bay, which the CBF acknowledges is unattainable. But it does say an eventual score of about 70 is possible.
In the latest index, the CBF gave credit for improvements for some water quality indicators, including nitrogen, phosphorus and water clarity. But Baker echoed the views of many scientists that those improvements were driven largely by the drought.
Less rainfall results in fewer nutrients being washed into the Bay, fewer algae blooms and improved water quality.
The index may have underestimated the condition of underwater grass beds, which it said were largely unchanged. Data released after the index came out suggest that Bay grasses in 2001 may have reached their highest level — more than 80,000 acres — since the Bay Program began annual surveys more than a decade ago.
Nonetheless, grasses still remain far below their historic levels. And although Baker said an increase in grasses “would be good,” an improvement in that category alone probably would not change the overall score. “The index would probably still have been around 27,” he said.
To improve Bay water quality in non-drought years, Baker said the Bay states needed to start ratcheting down nitrogen releases from wastewater treatment plants, and promoting further nutrient reduction actions among farmers.
But progress toward setting new nutrient reduction goals has stalled while the Bay Program develops new water quality standards which would describe what a “clean” Chesapeake Bay would be like. Once standards are agreed upon, the Bay states will determine the amount of nutrient and sediment reductions needed from each major Bay tributary to achieve them.
But the process has fallen behind schedule, and the nutrient reduction goals — once expected at the end of last year — will not be ready before the end of April. At that point, a yearlong process will begin to develop nutrient reduction plans for each river.
Baker noted that scientists and many Bay state officials have already said that big, new nutrient reductions, especially for nitrogen, will be needed to clean up the Chesapeake.
“What is the worry about starting now, before the standards are finalized, unless there is a concern that we would remove too much nitrogen from the system,” Baker said. “And I say that is absurd.”
In addition to the drought-related water quality improvement, the CBF index for American shad rose one point following this year’s strong shad run, the second year in a row that indicator has increased. Still, shad only scored 7 because the overall stock remains at a fraction of its historic levels.
On the negative side, the CBF dropped the blue crab index by 2 points as reports continue to raise concern about the health of the stock. The toxics index also dropped by two points, based on an increase in chemical discharges to waterways in Virginia and Maryland as reported in the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory.