The ecological health of the nation’s largest estuary remains stuck at a low ebb, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The MD-based Annapolis environmental group rated the Bay’s overall vitality a D+, the same lackluster score it got in 2020.
In a presentation note of his biennial State of the Bay report, CBF President and 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.”
The CBF said 7 of the 13 pollution, fisheries and habitat indicators it monitors remained the same, while three improved and three deteriorated.
The amount of nitrogen and phosphorus fouling water flowing into the bay in 2022 from its major rivers was below the 10-year average, CBF acknowledged. But the past two years have seen no real progress in water quality, he said. While phosphorus levels improved slightly, the already poor water clarity decreased and nitrogen pollution remained unchanged.
Nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus feed algae blooms that reduce water clarity and deplete the water of oxygen as they decompose, causing the bay to “dead zone”. The federal state’s Chesapeake Bay program has struggled for decades to restore water quality, but recently acknowledged it likely would miss its self-imposed 2025 deadline to meet pollution reduction goals it set in 2010.
The group’s assessments are a blend of science and politics, assessing not only the condition of the bay and its resources but also federal and state efforts to restore it.
“Bay State is on the edge of a precipice,” said Beth McGee, CBF director of science and agricultural policy. “We must accelerate our efforts to reduce farm pollution to ensure that the entire watershed restoration effort is successful.”
Falk noted that much of the water quality improvements to date have come from upgrading wastewater treatment plants. To make further progress, he said, more efforts are needed to reduce farm pollution, especially in Pennsylvania, and to curb urban and suburban stormwater runoff.
In one of the few good news, the CBF updated the bay oyster population status, citing record breeding in both Maryland and Virginia in 2020 and 2021. But the group has yet to give the key species a passing grade, saying more is needed to end overfishing and restore lost coral reef habitat.
The CBF assessment of striped bass scored one point, crediting states with tightened catch limits enough to rebuild its population from dangerously low levels seen just a few years ago.
However, the CBF downgraded the status of blue crabs more than any other health indicator in the bay, citing the 2022 survey that estimated the population at its lowest level in 33 years. Fishery managers in Maryland and Virginia have tightened catch limits in response.
For key bay habitats, the CBF rated the condition of underwater grasses, forest buffer areas and wetlands unchanged from 2020. But downgraded the status of “resource lands” slightly – forests, open natural areas and agricultural land. . He cited aerial surveys estimating that 95,000 acres of farms and forests were lost to development across the bay watershed over a five-year period ending in 2018.
“Although we’ve made significant progress,” Falk said, “too much pollution still reaches our waterways and climate change is making it worse.”
However, the CBF president saw cause for optimism.
“The good news is that the Bay is extraordinarily resilient and there’s 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 show that restoring clean water is possible.”