ANNAPOLIS — Heavy rains that brought additional pollution downstream last year contributed to the first decline in a decade to the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay, according to a report released Monday.
The Bay’s health grade sank from a C-minus in 2016 to a D-plus in the 2018 State of the Bay, a biennial report issued by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Bay scored a 33 out of a possible 100 after scientists measured 13 indicators in three categories, including pollution, habitat and fisheries. The report cited record rains last year that brought large amounts of pollutants downstream, mostly from Pennsylvania, but also from other regions.
“Simply put, the Bay suffered a massive assault in 2018,” said Will Baker, the group’s president. “The Bay’s sustained improvement was reversed in 2018, exposing just how fragile the recovery is.”
“As a result, for the first time in 10 years, CBF’s State of the Bay report score declined from a C-minus to a D-plus, and that’s the bad news,” Baker said. “The good news is there are signs the Bay is developing a resilience that may help it overcome long-term damage caused by record storms and rainfall, which dump polluted runoff into our waters.”
Beth McGee, a senior scientist at the foundation, which has released the report on the Bay’s health since 1998, also highlighted the effect of the rains, which washed enormous amounts of debris from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania south into Maryland waters and into the nation’s largest estuary.
“While some indicators improved or stayed the same, scores for the Bay’s two systemic pollutants — nitrogen and phosphorous — decreased substantially, reflecting increased loads caused by the high rainfall in 2018 and above average loads in 2017,” McGee said. “The score for water clarity also dropped — another casualty of the record rain.”
Baker said the Bay is facing some of the most serious challenges ever seen. The Susquehanna River, which supplies about half of the Bay’s fresh water, is “severely polluted,” he said, and pollution attached to sediment that once stayed largely behind the Conowingo Dam is no longer trapped behind the dam’s walls.
Of the primary Bay states, Virginia and Maryland were close to meeting the 2017 goals but need to accelerate pollution reduction from agriculture and urban/suburban runoff. Pennsylvania continues to be far short of its goals, mostly as a result of falling behind in addressing pollution from agriculture.
“Pennsylvania’s farmers are facing tough economic times and can’t implement the necessary practices on their own. The Commonwealth must join Maryland and Virginia to fund proven clean water initiatives to help farmers,” McGee, CBF’s director of science and agricultural policy, said. “If the state legislature does not fund efforts to reduce pollution in its next session, EPA must hold Pennsylvania accountable.”
McGee added that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is standing with the Maryland Department of the Environment to require that Exelon mitigates for the downstream water quality damage caused by its operation of the Conowingo Dam. This changes the timing and form of pollution reaching downstream waters.
“One cost-effective mitigation option is to help reduce the pollution coming down the Susquehanna River before it can ever reach the dam,” McGee said.
Deborah Klenotic, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said Pennsylvania state agencies have been collaborating with local communities, the agricultural industry, businesses and environmental organizations to improve water quality.
“Pennsylvania has been working diligently to be a good partner on Bay clean-up efforts and is working collaboratively with farmers and other stakeholders to implement best practices for sediment control in the watershed area,” Klenotic wrote in an email.
Of the 13 indicators evaluated by scientists, water clarity, nitrogen and phosphorus showed large declines. The drop was largely due to increased pollution and poor water clarity caused by record regional rainfall, according to the report.
Dissolved oxygen was at 42, equivalent to a C (up two points from 2016); underwater grasses scored 25, equivalent to a D (up a point from 2016); and resource lands was 33, equivalent to a D plus (up one point from 2016).
In the pollution category, toxics were unchanged at a score of 28 (equivalent to a D); while water clarity (16, equivalent to an F), nitrogen (12, equivalent to an F) and phosphorus (19, equivalent to an F) were worse.
In the habitat category, scores for Bay grasses and resource lands improved, and forest buffers (57, equivalent to a B) and wetlands (42, equivalent to a C) remained the same.
In the fisheries category, scores for oysters (10, equivalent to an F), blue crabs (55, equivalent to a B) and rockfish (66, equivalent to an A minus) remained the same, while the score for shad (10, equivalent to an F) declined.
Established in 1998, CBF’s State of the Bay Report is a comprehensive measure of the Bay’s health. This year’s score is still far short of the goal to reach 40 by 2025 and ultimately a 70, which would represent a saved Bay.
The unspoiled 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 serves as the theoretical benchmark and would rate a 100 on CBF’s scale.
The Clean Water Blueprint requires the Bay jurisdictions to decrease pollution to local creeks, rivers, and the Bay. State and local governments have committed to achieve specific, measurable reductions. The states agreed to have the 60 percent of the needed programs and practices in place by 2017, and to complete the job by 2025.
“Despite these setbacks, the ecosystem is showing resilience to this year’s environmental stressors due to increasing growth of underwater vegetation and robust investments in land preservation,” Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said. “We must also focus on making policy changes to ensure the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint can handle the realities of changing weather patterns that challenge the Bay’s long-term health. Expanding Maryland’s protections for oysters and forests are changes leaders should pursue to make the Bay more resilient.”
According to Baker, with President Donald Trump being in denial of climate change, the effects are already being felt. Baker pointed out that this is a critical time in the history of the Bay restoration, and there is a choice Americans must make.
“The Trump administration’s anti-environmental policies must be stopped,” said Baker. “There is a moral imperative for everyone here to stand up and oppose the administrations denial of climate change and efforts to roll back environmental protections. Clean water and clean air should be a right, not a luxury that we have to fight for. It’s a fight the American public will give to them. Americans are environmental leaders, and we must not allow our values to be stomped on.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.