New reports in April brought a shower of bad news about the status of the Chesapeake. Their common message: It’s in bad shape.
The Bay Program released its second annual Ecosystem Health report, which showed key measures of water, habitat and fisheries health remain far from the state-federal partnership’s goals in 2006.
Meanwhile, a team of scientists flunked the Bay in their first Chesapeake Bay Report Card. Measured on a 100-point scale, they put the Bay’s 2006 condition at 37, which earned a grade of a D+. They also examined 15 regions around the Bay: None scored better than a 55. The lowest score was 13.
“None of it is in very good shape,” said Bill Dennison, a researcher with the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. “2006 wasn’t a particularly good year for the Bay.”
While both the Bay Program and the scientific team’s reports were similar, there were key differences. The Bay Program’s health report largely measures how close the Chesapeake is meeting individual cleanup goals, many of which are legally binding, such as those for water clarity, underwater grass acreage, and dissolved oxygen. But it does not give the Bay an overall rating.
The scientists’ report card, in contrast, merges several indicators of water quality and habitat conditions into a single score. It also applies the technique to local areas of the Bay.
However one looked at the reports, the bottom line remained the same: the Chesapeake is in dismal shape.
“At best,” acknowledged Jeff Lape, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office, “the health of the Bay is not responding as quickly as we would like it to do.”
In fact, the Bay Program’s Ecosystem Health report indicates little has since the Bay Program was created 24 years ago.
Long-term trends presented in the report suggest that since 1985, water clarity and concentrations of chlorophyll a (a measure of algae) have worsened. Dissolved oxygen appears to have improved slightly, while bottom habitats and phytoplankton communities show no clear trends. Underwater grasses, after increasing, have stabilized.
More worrisome: Nitrogen and phosphorus, two nutrients that have been the focus of pollution control efforts since 1987, don’t exhibit any strong long-term trends.
The amount of nitrogen entering the Bay since 1990 has averaged about 350 million pounds, and while phosphorus has averaged about 22 million pounds a year. The cleanup goal for nitrogen is 175 million pounds, and for phosphorus, 12.8 million pounds.
In 2006, about 331 million pounds of nitrogen and 13.4 million pounds of phosphorus entered the Chesapeake, according to Bay Program estimates made using a combination of water quality monitoring and computer models.
Lape noted that the region is holding the line on water quality in the face of a growing population—about 170,000 people are added to the watershed each year. “But even that is looking at the glass as half full,” he said.
The lack of any strong improvement in the water contrasted sharply with figures in a companion report released by the Bay Program, Restoration Efforts, which sought to measure actions taken to meet various goals.
According to the restoration report, wastewater treatment plants have met 72 percent of the nitrogen, and 87 percent of their phosphorus reduction goals. Agriculture has met 45 percent of the nitrogen and 49 percent of the phosphorus goals. Runoff from urban lands are going in the wrong direction altogether.
“We’re sprinting pretty hard,” said Jeff Corbin, assistant secretary for natural resources in Viriginia, where the General Assembly and Gov. Tim Kaine recently approved a $250 million bond sale to support the Bay cleanup. “Unfortunately, the health of the Bay isn’t responding.”
“It’s a long-term effort,” he added.
Part of the reason those efforts are not showing up in water quality likely stems from rain: Heavy rainfall can push large amounts of nutrients off the land and into the water, and many recent years have either had greater-than-average amounts of rainfall, or severe rainfall events during particularly sensitive times for the Bay. And, while reductions at wastewater treatment plants show up quickly in the Bay, actions taken on farms and other lands can take time —often years—to be fully effective.
But scientists have also warned that some of the actions taken to control runoff may not be as effective as assumed by the Bay Program. A 2004 report by the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee on controlling nutrients from agriculture said that “progress is likely overpredicted” by overly optimistic assumptions about the effectiveness of various practices used to control runoff.
In an interview, Lape—who spent part of his early career assessing impacts of agriculture on water quality—said more intense work was needed in small targeted watersheds to ensure that actions taken on the land are having the predicted affect on water quality.
“We need to bring some of our work down to a more manageable scale,” he said. “You need to see the before and after effects within a small enough scale to test the hypothesis of whether these things are really happening.”
While more scientifically rigorous, both reports reached similar conclusions as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual State of the Bay report. “I don’t think you are seeing anything significantly different in any of these reports,” said Roy Hoagland, CBF’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration. “The Bay remains in jeopardy. But the question is, how many more reports to we need to convey the message that we need to accelerate implementation?”
David Bancroft, president of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, said the region’s governors needed to show strong backing for a new Farm Bill that would increase funding for farmers implementing conservation programs. And, he said, they need to devise new programs to control urban and suburban runoff, such as a tax on all impervious surfaces.
“The bottom line is, where’s the leadership? Where’s the bold action?” Bancroft said. “Are we going to continue to get a series of reports that show some mild improvements in some areas and some declines in others year after year with no change coming from the leadership?”
Lape agreed that state and federal agencies needed to step up their efforts, especially when it comes to working with the agricultural community. But he said more efforts were needed to engage local governments and watershed groups in the restoration effort.
“We keep saying the feds and states really need to do more,” Lape said. “Yes they do. But we’ve got to engender a far broader base of support because there are limits as to what the federal and state governments can do, particularly when it comes to pressure on developing land in the watershed. If we can’t fully engage local governments, I’m not at all confident that the feds and states alone can get it done.”