The Chesapeake Bay’s health suffered in 2018 amid “a massive assault” from record rainfall that washed more pollution than usual into its waterways.
The bay’s health fell to a D+ in a biennial report card released Monday — a decline from its previous C- grade.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called its assessment “a grim reality” that stresses the importance of stopping the Trump administration from rolling back regulations it says have helped the bay recover in recent years.
“Efforts to save the bay are facing some of the most serious challenges we've ever seen,” said Will Baker, the foundation’s president.
The Chesapeake had earned the C- in 2016, in the last edition of the foundation’s bay report card. That was the bay’s best grade ever in an assessment the foundation launched in 1998.
But for 2018, its score declined for the first time in a decade.
Baker said that to clean up the Chesapeake, all states within the bay watershed need to keep their pledges to reduce pollution, the federal government cannot eliminate more environmental laws and regulations, and the globe needs to act to slow or prevent climate change.
He specifically called on Pennsylvania officials to do more to encourage farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer running off of their fields, down the Susquehanna River and into the bay.
“This is a critical time in the history of bay restoration,” Baker said. “We can choose to save the bay … or we can allow anti-environmental forces to ensure a return to dirty water and dirty air.”
Overall, the health of the bay’s ecology rated a 33 on a 100-point scale, one point lower than in 2016. With a score of 70, ecologists would consider the bay to be “saved;” a score of 100 represents the bay’s pre-Colonial pristine conditions.
Nearly twice the normal precipitation fell across Maryland and much of the bay’s six-state watershed last year, setting records across the Mid-Atlantic. All of that stormwater meant more phosphorus and nitrogen washing into the bay, fueling algae blooms that cloud waters and eventually strip out oxygen, said Beth McGee, the foundation’s chief scientist.
Baker said ecologists worry that 2018 offered a preview of what is to come for the bay if precipitation continues to increase and federal oversight continues to decrease. Among the Trump administration proposals bay advocates say could have the biggest impact is one to cut back federal jurisdiction over intermittent streams and other small or temporary waterways. Farmers argue the Obama-era rule, known as Waters of the United States, was overreaching and overburdening.
There were some positive signs on the report card. Oxygen levels actually increased in waters around the bay, and there was evidence that newly recovered beds of underwater grasses withstood a surge of sediment and pollution that might have devastated them a decade ago.
A University of Maryland study in 2018 also shows that oxygen-deprived dead zones in the bay did not increase, which is evidence that the “Chesapeake Clean Water blueprint is working,” McGee said.
Amid normal precipitation in 2017, the dead zone got smaller, the report card says.
Assessments of blue crab, rockfish and oyster populations were unchanged from 2016. While that was good news for crabs and rockfish, it meant the grade for oysters remains an F. The bivalve mollusks piled high around the bay when Captain John Smith arrived in the 1600s, but a recent study found there are 300 million market-sized oysters in Maryland waters, only half as many as there were a decade earlier.