Chesapeake Bay health remains poor, says latest State of the Bay report

By: - January 5, 2021 5:35 pm

A marina in Deltaville, which sits near the tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

Two years after its last assessment of the Chesapeake Bay’s health, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has found little overall improvement in the nation’s largest estuary, despite reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and the shrinking of the bay’s dead zone, an oxygen-deprived area where species are unable to survive. 

“The Chesapeake Bay system is still dangerously out of balance, but there’s hope for improvement as pollution levels decline and the dead zone retreats,” said Foundation President Will Baker in a call with reporters Tuesday morning.

The nonprofit environmental group, which has played a leading role in the Chesapeake Bay’s cleanup, awarded the bay a D-plus grade in its 2020 State of the Bay report. That ranking was the same as the one awarded in 2018, the last year the biennial report was issued. 

Baker called the D-plus grade “a sober reminder that the road ahead remains steep and the clock is ticking.” 

State of the Bay scores are based on 13 indicators related to pollution, habitat and fisheries. 

Bay states have made progress on pollution reduction, with all types of pollution except toxic contaminants — a classification that includes substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and per- and polyfluoroalykyls (PFAS) — showing declines, said CBF Director of Science and Agricultural Policy Beth McGee. 

Those strides have been offset, however, by major drops in the bay’s striped bass population. According to CBF ecosystem scientist Chris Moore, stock assessments have shown a roughly 40 percent reduction in the East Coast’s female striped bass population between 2013 and 2017. 

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission in 2019 passed emergency regulations limiting the striped bass catch in an effort to curtail overfishing of the species, a move Moore contrasted Tuesday with what he described as a more “piecemeal” approach by Maryland.

CBF President Baker attributed the lack of improvement in the bay’s overall health to rollbacks of federal environmental protections by Donald Trump’s administration as well as weak cleanup plans from Pennsylvania and New York that fall short of the reductions needed to meet the 2025 goals of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. 

“Pennsylvania is the jurisdiction that is furthest off track,” said McGee, adding: “Without significant additional reductions from Pennsylvania it will be impossible to meet the Blueprint goals.” 

In September, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, along with Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to enforce pollution reduction limits for both Pennsylvania and New York. The case is still pending.

“If Pennsylvania does not meet its obligations … the Chesapeake Bay will never be saved,” Baker said.

The Susquehanna River, which originates in New York and runs through the heart of central Pennsylvania, provides 50 percent of the fresh water emptying into the bay, Baker said, noting that a healthy Susquehanna is “absolutely critical to a healthy bay.”

Jamar Thrasher, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star that the agency believes “the commonwealth (not just DEP, as this effort is larger than that) will meet the 2025 goals.”

The Trump administration’s refusal to enforce the Clean Water Act deserves blame, but so does the Pennsylvania General Assembly, “which has been reluctant to provide assistance to farmers that MD and VA have provided to their farmers,” Baker said.

“We’re not blaming farmers. They have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to put practices in place if they get the assistance their colleagues in Maryland and Virginia have received,” Baker continued.

Pennsylvania needs to spend $324 million a year to meet its clean-up obligations, advocates said Tuesday. That funding could come solely from Keystone State taxpayers, or it could be a blend of state and federal money.

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star contributed to this report. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.