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Study finds little change in bay's health rating


The health of the Chesapeake Bay didn't get any better in the past year, but it didn't get worse, either, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Crab harvests have dropped sharply and the water has gotten murkier, but the rapid loss of wetlands, which filter pollutants from the water, has been stemmed and the shad population has increased, the foundation said yesterday in its annual State of the Bay report. The foundation gave the bay a score of 28, on a scale in which 100 is the pristine quality described by the English explorer Capt. John Smith when he first sailed the Chesapeake in 1607. The score is the same as the previous year's.

Will C. Baker, foundation president, said he was disappointed the score had not improved. But he was optimistic about the future because of the approval in June of a new Chesapeake Bay agreement.

The agreement among Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, the heads of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, calls for a tenfold increase in oysters in the next decade, restoration of thousands of acres of underwater grasses, forest buffers and wetlands and stopping sprawl development.

"The basic mechanics to save the bay are in place," Baker said. "If the agreement is upheld, dramatic improvements will result."

Some saw encouragement in the foundation's numbers, despite the apparently slow progress.

"The fact that we're holding steady and not going down is great," said Sarah Taylor-Rogers, Maryland's secretary of natural resources. "While no one thinks we're where we ought to be, the trend is in the right direction."

Ann Pesiri Swanson, head of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said holding the line "is a massive achievement."

But she and Baker agreed that is not good enough.

"The Chesapeake Bay has been released from the intensive care unit, but she's still in the hospital, and doctors are worried that her recovery will not be sure and steady," Baker said.

Bay foundation officials say that they realize the estuary will never return to its condition in 1607, but that they hope to reach a score of 70 over the next 20 years.

To determine their annual score, bay foundation scientists analyze factors such as fish and shellfish populations, underwater grasses, wetlands, open lands and pollutants - assigning scores to them based on historical information - and average them.

This year, the foundation found a slight increase in the shad population, primarily because of the opening of fish ladders at hydroelectric power dams along the Susquehanna, allowing shad to migrate to traditional spawning grounds upstream. The remaining factors held steady, with the exception of the decline in crabs and water quality and an increase in phosphorous and nitrogen, or nutrients.

Nutrients, which come from a variety of sources, keep sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and rob the water of oxygen. Some of the nutrient increase this year was related to the weather, said Mike Hirshfield, the foundation's senior scientist.

"We had drought last year, and that was good for the bay because it reduced the amount of runoff into the water," he said. "But this year, we've had near-normal rainfall, and that has elevated the levels of runoff."

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