The Chesapeake Bay’s health is rebounding, an early sign that state and federal efforts to curb pollution are bringing America’s largest estuary back from the brink of ecological ruin, a new report suggests.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave the bay a C-minus for 2016, the highest mark the influential group has assigned in its biannual report card since its inception in 1998. Overall, the bay improved by 2 points from 2014, raising its grade from a D-plus.
“The state-federal Clean Water Blueprint established in 2010 is making a measurable difference,” said Will Baker, the foundation’s president.
Nine of the foundation’s 13 health indicators have improved since 2014, the report shows. Blue crabs received the biggest boost, with the crustacean’s grade heading up from a C-plus to a B. Three indicators were unchanged, and the one that decreased — forested buffers — fell by only 1 point.
Baker warned that the effort to resurrect the bay is far from over, though.
The six states around the bay and the District of Columbia face an end-of-the-year deadline to prove they have taken at least 60 percent of the steps necessary to accomplish the campaign’s goals. Some, particularly Pennsylvania, are far from it.
“This is good news, but the recovery is fragile,” he said. “There’s a long way to go.”
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin credited the “modest” improvement to countless hours of work on the part of public servants, environmental advocates, farmers and others. He echoed Baker’s concerns about maintaining the effort through its 2025 deadline.
“A grade of C-minus is hardly an acceptable endpoint,” Cardin said in a statement. “To reach an A — which would represent a saved and comprehensively healthy Bay — we will need to accelerate and redouble our efforts.”
Thursday’s report comes against a backdrop of uncertainty over the future of the restoration.
President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, the lead federal agency on the cleanup. If the EPA doesn’t enforce the 2010 agreement, it could take states and industries off the hook for their share of the work, environmental advocates say.
Trump’s pick to head the agency, Scott Pruitt, joined a federal lawsuit as Oklahoma’s attorney general to oppose the cleanup. In all, 21 state attorneys general backed the American Farm Bureau Federation action, which argued that the agreement represented an overreach of federal authority. The Supreme Court declined to take up the case last year, leaving in place a lower court ruling that granted the EPA jurisdiction to enforce total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, under the Clean Water Act.
What will become of the restoration under Trump?
“That’s a real question only the future will tell us,” Baker said. “If it doesn’t, we and others will be strong advocates for why it should (continue).”
Beyond the restoration work, the foundation attributed the bay’s upswing to fortuitous weather, namely an unusually dry year that led to reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution as well as improvements in water clarity.
Nutrients are a particular concern. Runoff from urban streets and farm fields can carry nutrients into the bay, where they can trigger fish-killing “dead zones.” The Bay Foundation’s report grades nitrogen progress at a 17 and phosphorus at 28; in its first report in 1998, the group gave the pair a combined score of 15.
The Delmarva Poultry Industry said in a tweet that such signs of improvement are “thanks in no small part to the thousands of chicken growers in its watershed who are meeting, and beating, nutrient management goals.”
Farmers in Maryland have been subject since June 2015 to a ”phosphorus management tool,” which sets field-based limits on fertilizer use. The agricultural industry also has been a vocal proponent of state-subsidized incentives such as a cover crop and manure-transport programs.
The Free State, however, could be doing more to protect the bay, said Alison Prost, the Bay Foundation’s Maryland executive director.
“The state is not keeping pace with its commitments to reduce polluted runoff from our towns, to protect and replant trees and to ensure the oyster population recovers,” she said. “We definitely cannot backtrack on our commitments.”
The report’s findings follow similar hints of good news for the bay.
No areas completely devoid of oxygen have been detected in the bay during the past two summers, the only years that has happened since 1985. Last summer’s dead zone, an area of low levels of oxygen, was smaller than expected.
Recent improvements in water clarity have been striking. The score for aquatic grasses is still just a quarter of its estimated pre-Colonial size, but it has doubled since 1998. Meanwhile, the total number of blue crabs has jumped from 297 million to 553 million since 2014, nudging the Chesapeake icon closer toward having what scientists consider a sustainable population.
The bay’s overall health grade of 34 would have to grow by 6 points to reach the Bay Foundation’s goal of 40 by 2025. The scale is out of 100, with 100 representing “pristine” conditions. That’s probably not possible today, Baker said, so the group’s ultimate goal is a grade of 70 — what it calls a “saved bay.”
On Twitter @Jeremy_Cox
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