CBF report finds slight improvement in Bay health

Associate Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Jan. 10, 2017) — The Chesapeake Bay’s grades are improving.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation released its biyearly report card last week and gave the Bay’s health a grade of C-minus or a 34 on a 100-point scale, a two-point jump over the foundation’s last report card issued in 2014.
The improvements were mostly credited to pollution reductions and rebounding fisheries.
“Most importantly, the Bay is getting better in spite of continued pressures,” foundation President Will Baker said in a conference call with reporters shortly after the report was released Jan. 5. “Let’s be clear: The Bay is not saved yet. Our score keeps the Bay in the dangerously out of balance zone as shown on the report, and it reminds all of us how much more needs to be done to achieve a shared vision and ultimately a saved Bay.”
Some of that improvement may be attributable to the region’s agricultural community.
The report card grade includes indicators for nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
Nitrogen saw a one-point improvement from 2014 and phosphorous saw a three-point improvement, thanks to less-then-average precipitation resulting and possibly the benefits of pollution management practices, including those applied to agriculture.
The nitrogen indictor continues to have an F grade, however, and phosphorous was given a D.
Programs such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Total Maximum Daily Load, commonly known as the TMDL, have lead to varied limits on crop field fertilizer application across the Bay watershed.
Though pollution can come directly from urban and suburban sources such a water treatment plants, runoff from farms and other areas represent the cheapest gains in pollution reduction, Baker said.
“We’re very pleased by the role agriculture has played not only the last two years but the last two decades,” he said. “Agriculture still has a long way to go as do runoff from urban/suburban areas, and we are encouraged that it will continue.”
The report card said the Bay’s water clarity and dissolved oxygen levels also slightly improved.
The amount of underwater grasses is also somewhat better.
Each fisheries indicator also jumped.
Blue crabs leapt 10 points to 55 total points, a B grade.
Rockfish jumped 2 points to 66 total points, an A-minus grade, and oyster and shad levels remain poor though somewhat improved with F grades.
For any indicator to receive an A grade, it must receive a minimum of 70 points.
If all indicators accumulated 70 points, the Chesapeake Bay as a whole would receive an A grade, and the foundation would consider it “saved.”
Though it would still be well below the foundation’s “pristine” designation.
At that point, the foundation said, Bay waters would resemble what explorer John Smith discovered when he first sailed into the Bay in the early 1600s, including clear waters and lush and abundant marine life.
As it stands, the Bay remains “in crisis,” the report said.
Only one indicator suffered a decline in the report card: forested buffers.
Forested buffer plantings near waterways that protect them from soil erosion and other pollutants were the lowest in 16 years, the report said. Watershed states planted only 440 streamside acres (versus a foundation goal of 14,000 acres yearly) last year.
The report also singles out Pennsylvania as a source of concern.
Roughly 19,000 miles or nearly one-quarter of rivers and streams in the commonwealth are pollution-damaged, and a large percentage of those are within the Susquehanna River basin, which feeds the Bay half of its freshwater.
The foundation is focused on five high-priority counties, which to meet the foundation’s 2025 pollution reduction goal, would require a 14.1-million-pound nitrogen reduction.
“Pennsylvania has had a more difficult time with the political support, the funding, but now what I think is being realized is how important the strategies for the entire Bay system are to local waters in Pennsylvania,” Baker said. 
Overall, watershed states should be encouraged by the improvement, he said, but not overly so.
“We have to keep these up,” Baker said. “These big systems can turn on a dime, especially in terms of decline.”