With just four years to go before the court-ordered deadline to remove the Chesapeake Bay from the nation’s dirty waters list, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2006 State of the Bay report shows modest improvement, with the health index up two points to 29 this year, still far from the goal of 40 by 2010.
Much of the improvement was driven by Mother Nature, with near record low spring rains. Even with the improvement, the health of the Bay gets an unacceptable “D” grade.
“Despite the improvements reflected in this year’s score, the Bay remains in critical condition. Fish kills, beach closures, and dead zones are clear reminders that much more needs to be done,” said CBF President William C. Baker. “Roadmaps developed by the states detail the actions that are needed to reduce pollution, but state and federal implementation has been slow, at best.”
The annual State of the Bay Report, which CBF first issued in 1998, is a comprehensive measure of the Bay's health. For the report, CBF evaluates 13 indicators: oysters, shad, crabs, striped bass (rockfish), underwater grasses, wetlands, forested buffers, resource lands, toxics, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, and phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. CBF scientists compile and examine the best available historical and up-to-date information for each indicator and assign it an index score and letter grade.
Taken together, these indicators offer an assessment of Bay health. The unspoiled Bay serves as CBF's benchmark. That original Bay ecosystem described by Captain John Smith in the 1600s, with its extensive forests and wetlands, clear water, abundant fish and oysters, and lush growths of submerged vegetation, rates a 100 on CBF's scale.
The improvement in the Bay’s health this year was primarily driven by reduced nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and a corresponding decrease in the dead zone, areas of the Bay with too little oxygen to support a healthy ecosystem. Pollution from industrial sources and sewage treatment plants is gradually being reduced as a result of tightened permit limits and upgrading plants with technology to reduce pollution.
“It is too soon to tell, if this is a trend. But we do know that this improvement is illustrative of what we can expect to enjoy if our elected officials implement the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. That will reduce the flow of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution into the Bay and its tributaries,” Baker said. “Sadly, funding and programs are in place to achieve only a little more than one-third of the region’s commitments. That must change. The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure, and much more must be achieved to save it.”
In Pennsylvania, nearly 4,000 miles of rivers and streams are impaired by nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from agriculture. Farmers are under tremendous pressure to do even more to protect water quality, but with rising costs and stagnant prices they can’t shoulder the burden alone. CBF is working closely with the agricultural community and government officials to secure increased funding to implement on-the-ground conservation practices on farms throughout the Commonwealth to improve the health of local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.
At the state level, the recently introduced legislative proposal “The Resource Enhancement and Protection Act of Pennsylvania” (REAP) would result in the largest single reduction of nitrogen to Pennsylvania's Bay watershed rivers and streams in the history of the Bay Program - 15 million pounds annually. It would provide $450 million in transferable tax credits over the next five years to help farmers farm in a more environmentally and financially, viable way. If passed, this legislation would make available one of the largest financial commitments to water quality improvements in Pennsylvania’s history.
“Farmers are important stewards of our land and water, and while programs exist to support conservation practices, these programs are under funded, and three out of four farmers are turned away,” said CBF’s Pennsylvania Executive Director Matthew Ehrhart. “If passed, REAP would help our farmers play a significant role in contributing to improvements in Pennsylvania's water quality.”
CBF is also working to increase funding for farm conservation programs for the Bay region in the next federal Farm Bill, to complement increased state funding. Agricultural conservation practices are among the most cost-effective ways to reduce nitrogen pollution from entering streams, rivers, and the Bay.
Implementation of REAP, in combination with full implementation of necessary reductions from sewage treatment plants, would reduce nitrogen pollution by 17 million pounds annually.
A copy of the State of the Bay Report is available online.
Video: Will Baker on the State of the Bay Report
Issue NoteBook: Resource Enhancement & Protection Tax Credit Proposal