Bay Health Report Card: Failing, But Not as Badly

The health of the Chesapeake Bay improved last year but remains poor, according to a bay barometer issued by the Chesapeake Bay Program. The regional partnership, which has coordinated bay restoration efforts since 1983, rated the bay’s health at 45 on a scale of 100, up from 39 the year before. Program director Jeff Lape said the report was a “mixed message of both hope and reality.” Highlights include slight improvements in water clarity, crab numbers and bay grass coverage. However, program officials say the health of the nation’s largest estuary remains too closely tied to yearly weather that affects how much pollution washes into the Chesapeake.

Continuing efforts are needed to put systems in place to allow soil in the bay watershed to better filter storm runoff. When more green roofs, rain gardens, cover crops on farms and other runoff retention systems are in place, the bay watershed will be able to better withstand events such as this spring’s heavy rains that wash nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus off farms and lawns into waterways, where they fuel oxygen-robbing algae blooms.

Dissolved oxygen, for example, remains a problem with only 12-percent of bay waters meeting Clean Water Act standards, the report said. A healthy bay will be a lot more resistant to sudden spikes from thunderstorms and heavy rains. While farmers are working to reduce runoff from their lands, program officials said runoff from urban and suburban areas was increasing. Hilary Harp Folk, senior manager for the Choose Clean Water Coalition, said residents can help by taking steps such as not fertilizing their lawns, planting native trees, shrubs and other plants, and driving less.

Program officials say the report is the most comprehensive and scientific look at bay health, including water quality, habitat and the well-being of fish and shellfish stocks. The report also looks at pollution reduction efforts and measures being taken to restore habitats, manage fisheries and protect watersheds. The Bay Program is the regional partnership that has coordinated bay restoration efforts since 1983. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and states in the bay watershed are among the program’s partners.