(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—This year, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) assessment of the State of the Bay remained at a D+, but declined by one point from 2018. While concerning, the decline is largely due to ineffective management of the Bay’s striped bass population, as opposed to water quality concerns.
Of the 13 indicators CBF assesses, four showed declines. Despite several years of assaults to environmental protections and flagging political will, most water quality measures are showing improvements.
But much more needs to be done.
Efforts must be accelerated to achieve the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint goal of implementing practices by 2025 that will reduce pollution sufficiently to restore water quality in local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. While efforts to save the Bay have been underway for decades, the Blueprint established in 2010 lays out a path to success.
“There is new hope. President-elect Biden has long been a reliable partner in Bay restoration efforts, and we are optimistic that the new administration will take the protection of water quality and human health more seriously,” said CBF President William C. Baker. “Pollution is not just a problem here in the Bay, it is a problem around the world. This is a historic opportunity to demonstrate to the world that by following the science, we can save a national treasure.”
Established in 1998, CBF’s State of the Bay Report is a comprehensive measure of the Bay’s health. CBF scientists compile and examine the best available data and information for 13 indicators in three categories: pollution, habitat, and fisheries. CBF scientists assign each indicator an index score from 1–100. Taken together, these indicators offer an overall assessment of Bay health.
“The good news is that recent studies provide evidence of the Bay’s increased resiliency. This resiliency is a direct result of the pollution reductions achieved to date. But the recovery is still fragile, and the system remains dangerously out of balance,” said CBF’s Director of Science and Agricultural Policy Beth McGee.
Of the water-quality indicators, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution improved. The level of dissolved oxygen in the water and water clarity, critical to aquatic life, improved as well. In fact, monitoring data indicated the 2020 dead zone, the area of oxygen-low water, was the second best in Maryland since the 1980s and among the best in Virginia. There was no change in the toxics score.
Habitat scores are also critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Forests, wetlands, and underwater grasses provide food and shelter to wildlife, serve as natural filters that reduce pollution flowing into Bay waters, and help improve the wellbeing of communities by slowing flood waters, producing oxygen, and providing green spaces.
In the habitat category, the acreage of forested buffers declined slightly, while scores for resource lands and wetlands stayed the same. The score for underwater grasses declined as a result of increased rainfall. The damage from climate change will need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive solution to improving water quality.
The harvest of fish and shellfish support thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars each year in the Bay watershed. But overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss have reduced the productivity of many of the region’s fish and shellfish populations.
In the fisheries category, scores for oysters and crabs improved, while shad and rockfish (striped bass) declined. The rockfish score declined by 17 points, the largest decline in any indicator in more than a decade.
“The situation is deeply concerning. Adult female striped bass, widely used to gauge the overall health of the population, have dropped by approximately 40 percent from 2013 to 2017,” said CBF Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore. “Efforts are underway to halt the decline. However, bold actions are needed now to ensure the recovery of this species and there are concerns that states might settle for a reduced population instead of taking strong management actions.”
The Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint requires the Bay jurisdictions to develop plans to decrease pollution to local creeks, rivers, and the Bay. State and local governments have committed to put practices in place by 2025 to achieve specific, measurable reductions. All jurisdictions except for Pennsylvania and New York have plans in place to meet their goals. Pennsylvania’s latest plan only achieves 73 percent of its nitrogen-reduction commitments and is underfunded by more than $300 million annually, according to Pennsylvania’s own review.
CBF’s federal and state offices identified the following priorities to restore local streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.
CBF’s Federal Executive Director Jason Rano noted:
“The Trump administration has made the tough job of restoring the Bay even tougher by weakening environmental safeguards, including wetlands protections and tailpipe pollution limits. It refuses to fulfill its responsibility to hold Pennsylvania and New York accountable for not honoring their Blueprint commitments. And for four years, it has tried to dismantle EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program in its annual budget request. Bipartisan support in Congress, however, has ensured the Bay Program received additional funding and that it is in line for yearly increases through 2025.
“The good news is that a new administration committed to protecting the environment is about to take office. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation looks forward to EPA recommitting to its role leading the Bay cleanup and reaffirming that regulations must be based on sound science. We’re eager to work with the agency to fund Bay restoration programs and strengthen the air and water protections essential to achieving the Blueprint’s goals.
“We also stand ready to help the Department of Agriculture carry out the 2018 Farm Bill as Congress intended. It is essential that farmers, particularly in Pennsylvania, get the funds they need to reduce runoff into the local rivers and streams that feed into the Bay.
“With the Biden-Harris administration at the helm, CBF is confident the federal government will again write, update, and enforce standards to support the success of the Blueprint and give the watershed jurisdictions the tools they need to meet the 2025 deadline on time.”
CBF’s Pennsylvania Executive Director Shannon Gority said:
“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s latest biennial report lists 25,468 miles of Commonwealth waters, 5,500 miles more than in its 2016 report, as being damaged by pollution.
“As the miles of polluted waters continue to grow, it is past time for elected officials at the state and federal levels to provide the leadership, funding, and technical support needed to get the Keystone State back on track toward reaching its Clean Water Blueprint goals by 2025.
“The new year is one of opportunities for legislators to have positive impact on the quality of our air and water, and the health and economic welfare of all Pennsylvanians, by including agricultural and environmental infrastructure in COVID relief strategies. Investments in these sectors will put people to work, provide demand for small businesses, clean up water and air pollution, and combat climate change.
“Farmers in the Keystone State have shown they are willing to invest their time, land, and effort to restore and protect local rivers and streams, but they cannot pay for it all themselves.
“We hope that a bill to establish an agricultural cost-share program to support Pennsylvania’s farmers will be re-introduced in 2021. This type of program has been successful in other Bay states and is sorely needed if the Commonwealth is to live up to its clean water commitments.”
CBF Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner said:
“When Virginia’s General Assembly session opens this month, legislators will make decisions crucial to restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. Virginia can boast many successes over its longstanding efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, but the Commonwealth will have to accelerate its work to achieve our goals. Robust investments in these programs—the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund to control polluted runoff, the Agricultural Cost-Share Program to assist farmers in effective conservation practices, and state grants to modernize sewage treatment plants—are key pieces to the puzzle.
“Legislation this session should also help local governments expand urban tree canopies as a cost-effective tool to reduce polluted runoff, address local flooding, shade hot neighborhoods, and improve the quality of life for many Virginians.
“Protecting the environment is not a zero-sum game. This work will benefit the economy by adding and supporting jobs that rely on clean water. It will also help vulnerable communities experiencing health problems exacerbated by exposure to pollution.”
In Maryland, CBF’s Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration Alison Prost said:
“Two years ago, we called on Maryland leaders to deliver more protections for the state’s forests and oysters.
“The General Assembly permanently protected the state’s five large-scale oyster restoration sanctuaries. Lawmakers also put in place a consensus-based process to break up the logjam that has separated watermen and environmental advocates in the debate over how to create a long-term oyster fishery management plan to end the century-long decline of Maryland’s oyster population.
“Even though state leaders have failed to increase forest protections, county leaders in Maryland took up the mantle on their own. In the past two years, Anne Arundel, Howard, and Frederick counties passed new laws to better preserve their existing forests. We’re hoping this trend continues. Forests serve as carbon sinks capable of filtering air and water, while also reducing negative effects related to climate change.
“The state needs to take more effective measures to stem the decline in striped bass. While other states chose to close the striped bass fishery during key times when the species is most threatened, Maryland took a piecemeal approach that we believe had limited effectiveness.
“Lastly, with only five years to go until the 2025 Bay cleanup deadline, we’re urging Maryland leaders to ramp up investments in natural filters to help plant trees, expand wetlands, and add more green spaces and vegetation to our cities and towns. Adding natural filters will help the state reduce agriculture and stormwater pollution, which Maryland needs to do to reach its 2025 Blueprint pollution reduction goals. The new trees, meadows, shrubs and wetlands will also beautify the state and our communities.”
Overall, CBF President William C. Baker said:
“The Blueprint is facing significant challenges, as EPA has abdicated its responsibility to ensure that Pennsylvania meets its clean water commitments. The District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware have plans that, if fully implemented, would achieve the goal. Pennsylvania, and to a lesser extent New York, have fallen far short. As the watchdog for Bay restoration efforts, CBF and its partners have filed suit in federal court to ensure EPA holds Pennsylvania and New York accountable to do their fair share to reduce pollution.
“After decades of failed promises and missed goals, this year’s State of the Bay shows that the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working. Unfortunately, the stagnating score shows that we are witnessing apathy take hold and political will wane. We can still save the Bay and deliver the promise of clean water to the next generation, but only if our elected officials redouble their clean water commitments and invest in finishing the job.”