Bay foundation gives Chesapeake health a C-minus, its highest mark since 1998

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has given its namesake estuary its best report card in decades.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave its namesake estuary a C-minus in a report card released Thursday, the highest mark since the organization began grading water quality and wildlife abundance in 1998.

Nine of 13 indicators the foundation tracks — including blue crab and rockfish abundance, underwater grass growth and levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution — improved last year from 2014, the bi-annual report found.

Foundation officials credited work to meet the goals of a bay cleanup plan established in 2010, but said more effort is needed to continue progress.

"The bay is getting better in spite of continued pressures ... including population growth, residential and commercial development, intensive agriculture and others," said William C. Baker, the foundation's president. "The bay is nowhere near saved. We've got a long way left to go."

The report follows several others released in 2016 showing improved bay health. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science gave the bay a C grade last May, giving its highest score since 1992.

The number of blue crabs in the bay was the most dramatically improved benchmark, while levels of water clarity and oxygen content also posted meaningful gains.

There were an estimated 553 million crabs in the bay last winter, up from 297 million two years earlier, according to data from an annual survey conducted by Maryland and Virginia scientists. That still fell short of a recent high of 779 million crabs in 2012, but the report said the population nonetheless shows resilience, with a strong mix of males and females, adults and juveniles.

Bay waters are clearer than many have seen in decades, Baker said, and that has helped underwater grasses grow to their largest extent in three decades, the report found. Grasses grew 21 percent from 2014 to 2015, to cover 91,621 acres.

The report "shows signs of hope that our work to date is paying off," said Alison Prost, the foundation's Maryland executive director.

The bay cleanup blueprint established in 2010 — an agreement steered by the Environmental Protection Agency and including the six states in the bay watershed, plus the District of Columbia — aimed to improve bay health by limiting the pollutants that wash into waterways. That is being accomplished through pressures on farmers to use less fertilizer, wastewater plants to improve sewage treatment technology, and local governments to reduce and clean up stormwater runoff.

The report card's scores for key pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, remain poor. Both showed improvement from 2014, but nitrogen content was graded an F and phosphorus earned a D. The report noted that some of the reductions could be because of below-average precipitation across the watershed, meaning the gains could be reversed when more rain washes more pollutants into the bay.

"The recovery is fragile," Baker said. "Any reduction in effort now and we will see the gains reversed and the decline begin again."

Foundation officials said that if the EPA under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump does not make enforcement of the bay cleanup plan a priority, it will be even more difficult to make progress. While there is political will in Maryland and Virginia to protect the bay, those states have no jurisdiction to encourage efforts elsewhere.

Prost said Maryland must also do more to meet bay cleanup goals.

"The state is not keeping pace with its commitments to reduce polluted runoff from our towns, to protect and replant trees, and to ensure the oyster population recovers," she said. "If we are to have a healthy and restored bay, rivers, and streams, we must persist."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad