Report: In 2018, the Chesapeake Bay ‘suffered a massive assault’

    Bird and marsh grass along the Chesapeake Bay. Image via the Virginia Office of Natural Resources.

    For the first time in 10 years, a biennial report meant to measure the Chesapeake Bay’s recovery shows that its overall health declined last year, receiving a D+ grade compared to a C- in 2016.

    “The bay suffered a massive assault in 2018,” said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, during a press call Monday. “The bay’s sustained improvement was reversed in 2018, exposing just how fragile the recovery is.”

    The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay report began in 1998 with a goal of showing how close the bay is to a full recovery. The body of water has been consistently listed among the country’s “impaired waters” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    In 2018, urban and suburban stormwater runoff from record-setting rainfall caused huge amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to pollute the bay. Baker also pointed specifically to pollution from Pennsylvania rivers and streams that flow into the bay as a cause of the lower score.

    “The Susquehanna River, which supplies 50 percent of the bay’s fresh water, is severely polluted in Pennsylvania,” he said.

    The Chesapeake Bay watershed. Image from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    The report did show some silver linings, though. The amount of underwater grasses and resource lands — well-managed farmlands and forests, for example — actually increased between 2016 and 2018. There was also more dissolved oxygen, suggesting the bay might be beginning to help itself by potentially changing a “feedback loop,” according to the report, that results in more oxygen in bottom waters.

    “The good news is that, even in the face of increased pollution, scientists agree the bay is showing signs of resiliency,” Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said on the press call.

    But the good news still seems dim in the face of the numerous challenges ahead that Baker described.

    Baker noted there is little evidence that Pennsylvania has the “political will” to fund a plan to address the problems.

    President Donald Trump’s administration’s efforts to eliminate environmental laws and regulations also threaten the progress that has been made so far in returning the bay’s water to full health, he said, as does climate change.

    “There’s a moral imperative for everyone to stand up and oppose the administration’s denial of climate change and efforts to roll back environmental protections,” he said. “Here’s the grim reality we face: Efforts to save the bay are facing some of the most serious challenges we have ever seen.”

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    Katie O'Connor
    Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.