Winter marsh

Low winter light filters through a marsh near the Chesapeake Bay. 

The ecological health of the nation’s largest estuary remains stuck at a low level, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Annapolis, MD-based environmental group graded the Bay’s overall vitality a D+, the same lackluster mark it got in 2020.

In a note introducing its biennial State of the Bay report, CBF President & CEO Hilary Harp Falk said it “shows there is still a long way to go to create a watershed that works for all of us.”

CBF said that 7 of the 13 pollution, fisheries and habitat indicators it tracks remained unchanged, while three improved and three worsened.

The amount of water-fouling nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Bay in 2022 from its major rivers was below the 10-year average, CBF acknowledged. But the past two years saw no real progress in water quality, it said.  While phosphorus levels improved a bit, already poor water clarity declined, and nitrogen pollution stayed unchanged. 

The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus feed algae blooms that reduce water clarity and deplete the water of oxygen when they decompose, causing the Bay’s “dead zone.” The federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program has been struggling for decades to restore water quality, but recently acknowledged it was likely to miss a self-imposed 2025 deadline for reaching pollution reduction goals set in 2010.

The group’s assessments are a blend of science and policy, scoring not just the condition of the Bay and its resources but also the federal and state efforts to restore it.

“The state of the Bay is at a precipice,” said Beth McGee, CBF’s director of science and agricultural policy. “We need to accelerate our efforts at reducing farm pollution to ensure the watershed-wide restoration effort is successful.”

Falk noted that much of the water quality gains to date came from upgrading wastewater treatment plants. To make further progress, she said, increased efforts are needed to reduce pollution from farms — especially in Pennsylvania — and to curb urban and suburban stormwater runoff.

In one of the few bits of good news, CBF upgraded the status of the Bay’s oyster population, citing record reproduction in both Maryland and Virginia in 2020 and 2021. But the group still didn’t give the keystone species a passing grade, saying more is needed to end overfishing and restore lost reef habitat.

CBF’s assessment of striped bass ticked up a point, crediting states with tightening catch limits enough to rebuild its population from dangerously low levels seen just a few years ago.

CBF downgraded the status of blue crabs more than any other Bay health indicator, though, citing the 2022 survey estimating the population at its lowest level in 33 years. Fishery managers in Maryland and Virginia tightened catch limits in response.

As for key Bay habitats, CBF rated conditions of underwater grasses, forest buffers and wetlands unchanged from 2020. But it downgraded slightly the status of “resource lands” — forests, natural open areas and farmland. It cited aerial surveys estimating that 95,000 acres of farms and forests had been lost to development across the Bay watershed over a five-year period ending in 2018.

“While we’ve made significant progress,” Falk said, “far too much pollution still reaches our waterways and climate change is making matters worse.”

Still, the CBF president saw reason for optimism.

“The good news is that the Bay is remarkably resilient and there is tremendous energy around the table,” Falk said. “With many new leaders taking charge — EPA administrators, governors, legislators, and within environmental organizations — we have an opportunity to prove that restoring clean water is possible.”

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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