Chesapeake Bay in Failing Health

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 24, 2001 (ENS) - Rapid development of open space and increasing pollution have led to the first documented health decline in the Chesapeake Bay in recent years, a new report reveals. The annual State of the Bay Report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation shows that excessive water pollution, problems with the blue crab fishery and accelerated loss of land to suburban sprawl are harming bay ecosystems.

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The Chesapeake Bay has lost most of its sea grass beds (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Two indicators of the Chesapeake Bay's health, expanded forest buffers and shad populations, show modest improvement since last year, the Foundation said. But overall, the Bay's health has declined on the group's 100 point scale, from 28 percent to 27 percent of historic health levels.

To be removed from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of impaired U.S. waters, the Chesapeake would need to score 40 percent on the Foundation's scale.

"The most alarming trend in this year's report is not what has changed, but what hasn't," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Water pollution - primarily from excess nitrogen and phosphorus - has mired the Bay's health in the 20 percent range. We need to cut this pollution in half before underwater grasses, crabs, oysters, and other life will thrive and restore the Bay system."

The State of the Bay Report is an annual snapshot of the health of North America's largest estuary. Based on analysis of data from a variety of sources, CBF scores the health of 13 key Bay indicators between 0 and 100 (the Bay before European settlement).

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Studies show that the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population is declining (Photo courtesy Maryland Sea Grant)
The average of these scores represents the overall health of the Bay. CBF estimates that the Bay's health bottomed out in the early 1980s when it would have scored a 23 and that a "saved Bay" would score a 70.

"We'll never see a Bay that is as pristine as that which John Smith saw in the beginning of the Seventeenth Century," added Baker. "But when we restore clean water with healthy levels of oxygen, we can expect a great awakening - an upward spiral driven by rebounding underwater grass beds and oyster bars."

The decline in this year's health rating is not only troubling for the Chesapeake, but also for all coastal waterways. The Chesapeake Bay and the multi-state, voluntary partnership that oversees the recovery are models for coastal waterway restoration around the world.

Experts estimate that the Chesapeake Bay is anywhere from 10 to 15 years ahead of any other estuary in this recovery effort.

Still, the Chesapeake faces some major problems, as this year's State of the Bay report shows. Compared to last year, no real improvement was made toward reducing the Bay's top pollution problem - excess nitrogen and phosphorus.

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Pollutants from urban and suburban areas, farms and roads all wash into the Chesapeake Bay (Photo courtesy Anacostia Watershed Society)
Along with sediment pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution lead to low levels of water clarity that prohibit sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, choke fish and smother shellfish. Water pollution also contributes to low levels of dissolved oxygen, creating "dead zones" in large parts of the Bay.

Pollution, along with decades of habitat loss and intensive commercial and recreational pressure have led to significant declines in the Bay's population of blue crabs, the bay's most valuable commercial catch. The crabs' reproductive capacity has also plummeted, the report shows.

In 2000, the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, composed of scientists, fishers, conservationists and others, came to consensus on a strategy to shore up the population and fishery problems. In 2001, Maryland and Virginia began a three year effort to implement the strategy, which includes efforts to slash the pollutants entering the Bay.

"Clean water is the foundation of a healthy Bay and our top priority," said Baker. "There are two ways to control water pollution - produce less and filter more. While reducing pollution from its sources, we must also restore natural filters such as forest buffers and wetlands and improve manmade filters, particularly sewage treatment plants."

So far, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is still losing natural filter lands at an alarming rate, the report shows. Prior to 2001, federal and state agencies estimated that about 90,000 acres of resource lands - farms, fields, forests and open spaces - were being lost each year to development.

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The Bay hosts hundreds of species of resident and migratory birds, like these Canada geese (Photo courtesy Maryland Sea Grant)
Updated estimates say that that figure is too low - the U.S. Department of Agriculture pegs the number at 128,000 acres each year.

On the bright side, shores lined by trees and shrubs are on the increase, due to a tremendous amount of restoration work throughout the watershed. Federal, state, local and private programs are restoring these buffers, which reduce erosion, filter pollution, and provide essential wildlife habitat.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, for example, offers financial incentives for farmers and property owners to restore buffers and wetlands and has grown to more than 5,200 acres in Virginia, 20,000 acres in Pennsylvania, and 30,000 acres in Maryland. However, the Bay has barely more than 50 percent of its historic levels of forest buffers, and pressure from land development continues to eliminate them.

A multi-state partnership is now working to restore the Bay's health by 2010, at an estimated cost of $8.5 billion. Chesapeake 2000, the new Chesapeake Bay Agreement signed in June 2000, provides a strong blueprint for those efforts.