Chesapeake Bay receives a ‘C’ on latest report card

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The Chesapeake Bay notched a “C” on its latest report card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, released Tuesday at an event in Alexandria, Virginia.

The latest report card, a periodic endeavor for the University of Maryland center and other local environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, shows a slight improvement from the past few years, but it comes amid an uncertain period for bay restoration.


There is broad agreement that the states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay are unlikely to meet a 2025 deadline to significantly curtail the amount of harmful nutrients they send into the nation’s largest estuary. Officials at the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is at the helm of the 2025 pact, are working to modify the timeline.

At Tuesday’s event on Daingerfield Island, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, likened the effort to restore the Chesapeake to “trying to run up an escalator that is going down,” amid development pressures and climate change.


“We have to establish new, ambitious targets and we need to hold ourselves accountable to getting there,” Van Hollen said.

Later this year at the Chesapeake Bay Program’s executive council meeting, a committee will deliver initial recommendations for a new bay restoration strategy leading up to 2025. In 2024, the committee will share its recommendations for post-2025.

“We’re kicking that off now to report back to our executive council in 2024, so we have a little bit of time,” said Martha Shimkin, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s deputy director. “And we’re very much looking forward to hearing the input — like these indicators — and other input from across the watershed so that we can do the best possible job.”

A report released last month by the Bay Program’s scientific advisory committee described how the bay’s ecosystem has been slow to respond to the reductions in nutrient and sediment pollution that have been realized so far, particularly in the bay’s deeper channels.

A similar picture has been painted by years’ worth of different bay report cards with middling scores. The most recent biennial report card from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation handed the estuary a D-plus for the third time in a row.

The University of Maryland center’s report for 2022 gave the bay a 51%, which is considered a “C”. It’s a one percentage point increase relative to 2021, though the score has increased six percentage points in the past two years. Any score between 80% and 100% would be considered an “A” by the center’s report.

It is tabulated using a set of key barometers of the bay’s water quality, including the levels of dissolved oxygen, aquatic grasses and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Those nutrients have been a major focus of the restoration. Left unchecked, they stimulate the growth of algae, which sucks oxygen from the water as it decomposes, dealing a significant blow to bay life.

Bill Dennison, vice president for science application at the University of Maryland center, emphasized the improving trajectory in the bay’s scores over the past few years.


“We are in the right direction,” Dennison said. “We just need to run up that escalator a little faster,” he said.

As nutrient levels have declined, improving the bay’s diet, its health metrics, such as dissolved oxygen and water clarity, haven’t improved at a commensurate rate, according to the Bay Program’s May report.

Nitrogen loads flowing in the Chesapeake have declined from 370 million pounds per year in 1985 to about 258 million pounds per year in 2021, according to the Bay Program, and phosphorous loads have decreased from 29 million pounds annually to 15 million in that same time span. However, while about 27% of the bay’s area met a set of corresponding water quality standards in 1985, that number increased only into the mid-30s by 2020.

In some areas of the bay, meeting the water quality standards could be “unattainable under existing technologies,” the Bay Program’s report said.

Among the possible reasons is increasing water temperatures due to climate change. But the report also notes that efforts to reduce pollutants from “non-point” sources, including agriculture and stormwater runoff, have paled in comparison to other efforts, like enhancements to nutrient removal technologies at wastewater treatment plants, which are responsible for a majority of the reductions thus far.

The Bay Program report points to potential changes in bay policy, such as an increased focus on required, rather than voluntary, changes in practice for agricultural land owners, and an increased focus on shallow areas and tributaries where smaller changes could have a greater impact.


As part of its report cards for the past few years, the University of Maryland center also has assigned individual scores to societal, economic and ecological factors within the Chesapeake Bay watershed — a land area stretching from Virginia to New York thanks to the bay’s many tributaries. It’s part of an effort to understand the “root causes” that shape water quality issues in the nation’s largest estuary, by considering factors like land use and development, Dennison said.

This year, the center’s report also includes a new map that uses the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s environmental justice index to show the unique vulnerabilities of certain communities in the bay watershed.

Dennison highlighted that some of the worst scores in those categories came from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, corresponding with worsening water quality data in Eastern Shore tributaries such as the Chester and Choptank rivers, he said.

Dennison said the density of chicken houses, as well as farms growing corn and soy, could be contributing, as could a lack of walkable communities and “hardened shorelines” with human-made barriers instead of natural wetlands, Dennison said.

“We really have to tackle agricultural head-on, and work with them, not pointing fingers,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out sustainable solutions for all of us.”