Chesapeake Bay Still Struggling with Pollution

By Cat Lazaroff

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland, September 21, 2000 (ENS) - The Chesapeake Bay ecosystem is dangerously out of balance, says the conservation group the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The groupís annual "State of the Bay Report," released Wednesday, shows that despite modest improvements since the 1980s, key Bay systems are still in trouble.


Chesapeake Bay wetlands (Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program)
Conservationists say the state of the Chesapeake Bay, bordered by Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, is an illustration of the problems facing all of the nationís coastal wetlands.

The "State of the Bay Report," which CBF issued for the first time in 1998, is a comprehensive measure of the Bay's health. For the report, CBF analyzed 13 factors: oysters, shad, underwater grasses, wetlands, forested buffers, toxics, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, crabs, striped bass, resource lands, phosphorus, and nitrogen.

Oysters and underwater grasses are distressed, nutrient pollution continues to hinder the Bay's overall water quality, and the Chesapeake operates at barely more than one fourth of its historical potential, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) says.

On a scale of 0 to 100, the Bay's health rates a 28, the same as in 1999, says the Annapolis based conservation group.

The past year brought positive trends in habitat restoration and marked improvement in the Bay's shad population. These advances, however, were offset by declines in blue crabs, water clarity, nitrogen and phosphorus.

"Habitat restoration and improved fisheries management can take us only so far," said CBF president William Baker. "Our Achilles heel remains a lack of a comprehensive strategy to reduce pollution from all sources. If we want to save the Bay we must get serious about water quality."

"The State of Bay Report is a sobering reminder of what is happening to all of our coastal and near coastal waters and habitat," said Mark Wolf-Armstrong, president of Restore America's Estuaries, a national coalition of 11 regional, coastal community based environmental organizations.

"Chesapeake Bay is the largest jewel in the necklace of 130 estuaries that encircles our nation. Whatever happens in the Chesapeake is a barometer for the whole country," said Wolf-Armstrong. "Now is time to redouble our efforts to protect and restore this old bay so that each positive effort is a net gain, and is not discounted by another slide backwards."


The Chesapeake Bay has lost most of its sea grass beds (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
CBF scientists compiled and examined the best available historical and up to date information on each factor and assigned an index number to each indicator. For example, the index value of 12 given to underwater grasses indicates that this key resource today covers only 12 percent of its historical acreage in the Bay and tributaries.

Taken together, the measure of these indicators offers an immediate description of Bay health. The unspoiled Bay, described by Captain John Smith's exploration narratives from the 1600s and confirmed in part by modern science, serves as CBF's benchmark.

That original Bay, with its clear water, abundant fish and oysters, and lush growths of submerged vegetation, rates a 100 on CBF's scale. The average index value of the 13 indicators evaluated by CBF for today's Bay is 28.

"On balance, the Bay is in somewhat better shape than it was 15 years ago," said Baker. "But continued water quality problems, as evidenced in the nutrient runoff and algae blooms during the rainy summer of 2000, and the over-stressed crab fishery demonstrate the complexity of Bay restoration."

The score for crabs dropped two points this year, to a score of 46. CBF scientists attributed the decline to intense fishing pressure, poor harvest and extremely low levels of the underwater grass habitat, especially in areas critical to the crab's life cycle.

CBF's scores for water clarity, nitrogen and phosphorus - important measures of water quality - also dropped.

"Last year, our ratings for these indicators improved slightly because the drought reduced runoff and stream flows," said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, CBF's vice president for resource protection. "But as normal rainfall returned this year, large quantities of nutrients were washed into the Bay, washing sediments and algae producing nutrients into the Bay system."


(Left to right) District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, EPA Administrator Carol Browner, and Maryland Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend at the signing ceremony for Chesapeake 2000 in June (Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay 2000)
CBF says Chesapeake 2000, a new Chesapeake Bay Agreement signed in June 2000 by the government partnership known as the Chesapeake Bay Program, provides a strong blueprint to raise the Bay's score significantly over the next decade.

Foremost among its commitments are a tenfold increase in the Bay's oyster population and a pledge to preserve millions of acres while reducing by 30 percent the rate of loss of forest and farmland to sprawl.

"Dramatic improvement will result if the political will to implement the new Chesapeake Bay agreement is exercised over the next decade," said Baker. "All of us who love the Bay must demand nothing less."

"We'll never see a Bay that is as pristine as that which John Smith saw," Baker said. "But we believe that if citizens of the watershed demand the Bay's restoration and pitch in, and if the Bay Program commits to reaching these ambitious we can take the Bay's health to at least a score of 50 by the year 2010. We must remember how rich our Bay once was, and not settle for a small fraction of what we know it can be."

The 2000 State of the Bay report also lists several ways in which citizen's can play a role in improving the Bay's health. Foremost among them is a request for the region's citizens to set a goal to drive at least ten percent less this year.


The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) is a small-toothed whale that ranges from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico. They inhabit the saltier waters of the lower Chesapeake Bay in summer. (Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program)
"Vehicles account for a third of the airborne nitrogen pollution that eventually ends up choking life in our waterways," said CBF's Hirshfield. "This is a problem we find nationally, not just in the Chesapeake watershed. If people can car pool, take public transit, and walk or ride their bikes, they can reduce traffic congestion and air pollution."

Companies can also help. On Wednesday, the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco) helped to seed about one million oysters on Broomes Island bar in the Patuxent River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary, to help replenish local oyster populations.

"On the Patuxent, oysters were once referred to as Chesapeake Gold," said Jim Potts, Pepco vice president for environment. "By seeding oysters, Pepco not only helps the oyster regain its golden status, we also reintroduce a powerful environmental ally that helps clean the river."

Pepco joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Calvert County Watermen's Association in transferring oysters from a state hatchery. The oysters will help filter pollutants out of the Patuxent before they can enter the Bay.

The "State of the Bay Report" report is available at: