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Chesapeake Bay receives C+, highest score in decades, at critical juncture for the cleanup effort

Christine Condon, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Science & Technology News

BALTIMORE — The Chesapeake Bay notched its best score in 20 years on the annual report card produced by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The bay received a C-plus for its ecological health, considering factors such as aquatic grasses, dissolved oxygen and nutrient content.

Throughout the report card’s history, the bay’s scores have typically hovered in the “moderate” range, which is marked by C grades. But this year’s score, calculated using data from 2023, climbed higher than any in recent memory, reaching 55% — up four percentage points from 2022. A score between 60% and 80% would be considered “good,” and anything beyond that would be labeled “very good.”

Only one of the 15 bay regions is seeing a downward trend with its scores: the Upper Eastern Shore. The remainder are either improving or holding steady, according to the center.

The report card comes at an important crossroads for the bay restoration effort, with broad agreement that the states surrounding the Chesapeake will not meet their 2025 deadline for reducing the runoff of harmful nutrients and sediment into the nation’s largest estuary.

Last week, a key committee within the Chesapeake Bay Program, which was tasked with charting the program’s future, released its recommendations for public comment, urging the governors of the bay states to reaffirm their commitment to the cleanup, and begin editing the flagging bay agreement, signed in 2014.

According to UMCES, at least some things are heading in the right direction. The scores for underwater grasses, oxygen content and nutrients all show significantly improving trends. But the measurements for chlorophyll a, which measures the algae in the water, and water clarity are declining, a scientific “mystery,” said Bill Dennison, vice president for science application and a professor at UMCES.

“The nutrients are declining, so that’s the good news,” Dennison said. “But we haven’t seen enough of that yet to get to this overall, overarching issue of cloudy water.”

The Lower Bay, where the estuary meets the Atlantic, had the highest overall score of any region in 2023, with a 70%, but Baltimore’s Back and Patapsco River area scored the lowest of any region, with a 22%, considered a D-minus. Scientists also are watching the Upper Shore closely, given its density of farming and livestock operations, and its declining score, despite less rainy conditions in 2023 compared to the year before, Dennison said.

The unveiling of this year’s report card also has a heightened significance because it is happening in Harrisburg, and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, is planning to attend, Dennison said.

Pennsylvania has long been criticized by other states and environmental advocates for hindering the cleanup effort. Some argue the state has failed to rein in its farms and animal feeding operations, which contribute fertilizer and animal waste runoff to bay tributaries.

In 2020, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and several states, including Maryland, sued the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency in charge of the 2025 deadline, arguing it failed to hold Pennsylvania accountable. A settlement was reached last year, and the EPA pledged to take more action in the Keystone State.

 

“This signifies a bit of shift,” Dennison said of Pennsylvania’s participation in the report card event. “We’ve been playing the blame game for decades. Literally pointing our fingers upstream at Conowingo, Pennsylvania. And it’s really not fair, because when we look at our data, the data doesn’t really support that.”

The closest Bay region to Pennsylvania, the Upper Bay, was also one of the year’s highest scoring, with a B-minus, Dennison said.

As of 2023, Pennsylvania had met 29% of its pollution reduction goal for nitrogen, 50% for phosphorus and 58% for sediment. It isn’t the only state lagging behind its promises. As a whole, the bay states had achieved 57% of their reduction goal for nitrogen and 67% for phosphorus by 2023, and they met their goal for reducing sediment.

Last year, the Bay Program’s scientific advisory committee released a critical report after years of research, endeavoring to explain why the bay restoration effort was falling short. It stated that efforts to corral pollution from “nonpoint” sources, including farms and suburban and urban stormwater runoff, were not doing enough, and recommended a change in approach. For example, paying farmers for the pollution reductions they achieve with particular practices (tree planting, for instance), instead of paying to encourage the practices to simply be adopted.

Perhaps more alarmingly, that report stated that the Bay Program’s computer modeling for nutrient reductions may be crediting the states for more reductions than they’re actually achieving, particularly when it came to phosphorus, because more nutrients have been observed in the estuary than expected.

The center’s report card is based entirely on on-the-ground monitoring, Dennison said, so it’s a promising sign that the recovery is inching forward, though it has fallen short of its promises from a decade ago.

This year’s UMCES report card also includes a “sneak peak” of new research that will appear in next year’s report card, Dennison said.

Scientists at the center are completing the first-ever comprehensive study of “manmade debris” in the Chesapeake, from microplastics to cigarette butts, and potato chip bags to discarded fishing nets, Dennison said.

Dennison said that adding the measurements to the center’s report card is part of an effort to better engage the public in the bay cleanup.

“[With] nutrients, farms have a lot to do with it, sewage treatment has a lot to do with it. Those are things out of control for the average citizen in the watershed,” Dennison said. “Yet, plastics? Everybody can make a difference. Everybody can make conscious choices to improve our plastic release into the environment.”

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©2024 The Baltimore Sun. Visit at baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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