The Chesapeake Bay’s condition ticked upward in 2021 but not enough to raise its middling C grade in the latest report card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The Bay’s overall ecological health garnered a 50% score, up 5 points from 2020, as some things got better and others worse. The nutrient pollution that causes summertime dead zones in the Bay improved, but the water got murkier and contained more algae.

Some progress has been made in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, mainly through upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, but much work remains. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

The Bay’s condition varied from one end of the estuary to another and even by tributary. As it has for years, the Lower Bay in Virginia had the best health relative to the rest of the estuary. Up the Bay, the Patapsco and Back rivers around Baltimore continued their decades-long run as the sickest tributaries, joined by Maryland’s Patuxent River.

At an event in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to release the report card, Bill Dennison, UMCES vice president for science applications, suggested that problems at Baltimore’s two wastewater treatment plants were affecting water quality in the Patapsco and Back rivers. The Maryland Department of the Environment and nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore have sued the city over the plants’ pollution violations. Dennison predicted the rivers would show dramatic improvements after those facilities are brought back into compliance.

Ecological health scores vary from year to year in the annual report cards that UMCES has been issuing since 2006, largely because of shifting weather patterns. Despite those ups and downs, UMCES concludes that the Bay’s general condition over time has improved slightly — gaining just 2 points on a 100-point scale — since the federal-state Bay restoration effort began in earnest in the mid-1980s.  

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman checks out a pipe discharging treated wastewater from a mobile home community along Sands Road in Anne Arundel County, MD. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

Around the Bay, the James and Elizabeth rivers in Virginia have shown significant long-term improvement, UMCES said. So have the Bush and Gunpowder rivers in Maryland. Even the laggard Patapsco and Back rivers have less nutrient pollution now than they did 45 years ago.

However, one area, the Upper Eastern Shore of Maryland, is trending in the wrong direction, even though its ecological score improved a bit in 2021. The chief culprit is presumed to be nutrients from farm fertilizer running off the land or seeping through groundwater into rivers and streams.

“We still have nitrogen and phosphorus problems in this largely agricultural region,” Dennison said, “so we need to buckle down on our agricultural best management practices.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a statement saying the UMCES report card tracks with the environmental group’s own State of the Bay report, though it characterized the Bay’s health as “stagnating” rather than “steady,” the term used in the UMCES press release.

Plugs of grasses are planted in sand as part of a living shoreline project on private property along Virginia’s Elizabeth River. Rather than hardening the shore’s edge with concrete or riprap, living shorelines create natural edges that receive the water’s ebb and flow and, over time, can be more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and powerful storms. Credit: Sterling Rollings

UMCES has expanded its report card in recent years to assess more than water quality conditions in the Bay’s 64,000 square mile watershed. The region earned a C+ grade, indicating moderate health in 2021, a notch below the B-minus bestowed in 2020.

But the two regional grades aren’t really comparable, UMCES noted. In addition to the usual ecological indicators, the 2020 report card included societal factors such as the walkability of communities and their vulnerability to extreme heat.  The 2021 version has added four more indicators of economic vitality and equity: household income, job growth, income inequality, and housing affordability.

“We’re trying to bring the report card into people’s backyards,” Dennison said, and to show the connection between healthy communities and a healthy Bay.  The expanded ratings include measures of environmental justice, he noted, “so we can be much more inclusive.”  

The new economic data, broken down by region and even by county, will be available on the website, UMCES said.

Timothy Wheeler, Bay Journal Media

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or

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