That's Chesapeake with a 'C'

Might a 'C-minus' Chesapeake Bay be judged worth saving?

The curse of letter grading systems is that only low- and high-achievers tend to get noticed when the report cards are sent home. Fail and you end up in the principal's office, get a perfect score and you may wind up there too (but for an entirely different type of conversation). But what are we to think of the C-minus performance?

In the case of the Chesapeake Bay, it is actually cause for optimism.

Last week's announcement that the nation's largest estuary was judged to be a C-minus performer by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is something of a surprise, particularly amid all the gloom and doom among environmentalists over the incoming Trump administration. As a candidate for president, Donald Trump spoke of environmental protections chiefly to disparage them, and his choice to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt, is not exactly a clean water, air or land champion either, having been one of 21 state attorneys general who sued, unsuccessfully, to halt the EPA's Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.

So why a gentlemanly "C" instead of the D-plus grade the foundation last gave the Chesapeake two years ago? Primarily because the indicators monitored by scientists (not only those associated with the non-profit but those employed elsewhere as well) reveal widespread improvements in water quality as well as habitat and fish stocks — not huge improvements, necessarily, and not in all cases, but persistent and unmistakable ones.

Underwater grasses, water clarity, oyster propagation, the list of areas where the bay is getting marginally better is rather extensive. And most importantly, advocates say, these trends seem to be feeding off each other. As the waters become less clouded with pollution, for example, underwater grasses thrive and oxygen levels increase which, in turn, helps make the water cleaner and supports fish and other aquatic species.

Why now? Again, it's not the result of just one action or decision but an accumulation of many choices over many years. For decades, Maryland and Virginia, and to a lesser degree other states in the watershed, have been cutting back on pollution, clamping down on overfishing and attempting to preserve vital habitat. Little by little, these measures have helped.

Such modest progress could easily be reversed, of course. The EPA's Chesapeake pollution "diet," as the current regional cleanup plan is often called, could be in jeopardy if opponents like the Farm Bureau persist in efforts to halt it. But it's also possible Mr. Trump's ascension will ease attacks that have been motivated not necessarily by a desire to kill the bay cleanup but to prevent the same model from being used to force other regions — the Great Lakes or Mississippi River basins, for example — to impose stricter pollution limits on farmers, developers and others.

In other words, might the C-minus student be ignored by Washington, its "parents" being content and its carefully-measured performance sufficiently positive to enable the occasional photo-op from politicians who live on its banks? As much as the EPA is about to be dismantled under Mr. Pruitt, a climate change denier and willing servant of the oil and gas industry, the Chesapeake Bay cleanup may yet escape the promised regulatory retreat — if only because the new administrator has bigger fish to fry.

Indeed, Mr. Trump may wish to take a cue from Gov. Larry Hogan who came into office on the strength of his opposition to the phantom "rain tax" but ultimately (and ironically) strengthened the state's stormwater pollution protections. And he charted a similar course in initially opposing regulations to reduce excess phosphorus, a type of nutrient most commonly associated with poultry waste, that he eventually rewrote — and strengthened. If Maryland's pragmatic, pro-business Republican governor with his 74 percent approval rating can endorse the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, perhaps a business-oriented Republican president with even less political experience can as well.

So whether the C-minus was fully earned or an effort to escape the anticipated anti-environmental onslaught to come, there is reason for hope. And that's no small thing for the residents of Maryland where so much — from billions of dollars in commerce, tourism, seafood and real estate values to the very identity of our region — is tied to the promise of a healthier Chesapeake Bay.

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