State of the Bay: Water Quality Improvements Offset By Fisheries Declines

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) biennial State of the Bay Report is a mix of good and bad news. The good news is that the overall pollution score improved, but that improvement was offset by declines in fisheries.

"While we can celebrate water quality improvements, we must also acknowledge that many local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay are still polluted. They remain a system dangerously out of balance," said CBF President William C. Baker. "The Clean Water Blueprint is in place and working, but there are danger signs ahead. The states must pick up the pace of reducing pollution, especially from farms and urban areas."

The 2014 State of the Bay Report is a comprehensive measure of the Bay's health. CBF scientists compile and examine the best available historical and up-to-date information for 13 indicators in three categories: pollution, habitat, and fisheries. CBF scientists assign each indicator an index score between 1 and 100. Taken together, these indicators offer an assessment of Bay health.

The 2014 report score is 32, a D+, unchanged from the 2012 score. The report notes improvements in dissolved oxygen, water clarity, oysters, and underwater grasses. Nitrogen, toxics, shad, resource lands, forested buffers, and wetlands were unchanged. Declines were seen in scores for phosphorus, and rockfish, and blue crabs.

This year's score is still far short of the goal of 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 benchmark, and would rate a 100 on CBF's scale.

"We know that budgets are tight in all the major Chesapeake Bay states; however pollution has cost thousands of jobs and continues to put human health at risk," Baker said. "In addition, our recent economic report found that investing in the Clean Water Blueprint will return significant economic benefits to the region. Once the Blueprint is fully implemented, the economic benefits throughout the region will increase by $22 billion annually."

The Clean Water Blueprint requires all of us in all the Bay states to ratchet down pollution to local creeks, rivers, and the Bay. State and local governments are responsible for achieving specific, measurable reductions. The states are to have the programs in place by 2025 to restore water quality, with an interim goal of 60 percent of those programs in place by 2017, just two years from now. If the states fail, they may lose federal funding or be denied federal permits.

"We have never before had this level of accountability and transparency in Bay restoration efforts," Baker said. "This is indeed THE moment in time for the Bay. Our children and grandchildren can inherit a restored Chesapeake Bay, but only if we continue the hard work and investments that will lead to success."

To meet their pollution-reduction goals, the Bay states are relying heavily on reducing pollution from agriculture. Unfortunately, while farmers are reducing pollution the region is not on track to meet its 2017 goals.

Actions needed, by state, to accelerate pollution reduction

Pennsylvania

The Commonwealth faces substantial shortfalls in reducing polluted runoff from agriculture and urban areas. CBF is working to:

  • Ensure Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), County Conservation Districts, and local partners work to assure robust outreach and education, technical and financial assistance, and compliance with state water quality laws and regulations by farmers and urban/suburban communities in the Commonwealth. It is estimated that a substantial percentage of farms still are lacking required pollution prevention and reduction plans and have long waits for assistance. In addition, recent audits by the US EPA have founds substantial shortfalls by communities required to address polluted runoff.
  • Promote new efforts to accelerate the planting of forest buffers and other core pollution reducing practices. In Pennsylvania forested stream buffers were established at a rate of six acres per day from 2009 to 2013, but must increase to a rate of fifty acres per day through 2017 to meet the goal the Commonwealth set.
  • Update Pennsylvania's Phosphorus Index to reduce over-application of phosphorus fertilizer on farm fields that can pollute streams and the Bay.
  • Convince the DEP to list the Lower Susquehanna River as impaired due to the continued problems facing the smallmouth bass population.

"The State of the Bay Report is not only a reflection of the health of the Bay, but also of local rivers and streams," said CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell. "Nearly one quarter of our streams and rivers are listed as impaired, damaged by pollution. That is unacceptable and puts our health and safety at risk. Polluted runoff from agriculture and urban/suburban areas are significant contributors to that damage."

Maryland

To accelerate pollution reductions, Maryland must set more ambitious goals and increase efforts to plant trees in both agricultural and urban lands. CBF is working to:

  • Ensure that Maryland implements measures to reduce phosphorus pollution from agriculture to nearby waterways. Phosphorus pollution is continuing to increase in many of the Eastern Shore's rivers.
  • Change Maryland's Forest Conservation Act to protect and replace more trees.
  • Reduce pollution from urban/suburban runoff by strengthening state permits, maintaining dedicated funding, and enforcing existing laws.

"To date, Maryland has been on track to meet the goals it set," said CBF Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost. "In order to continue to make progress, Maryland's newly elected officials will need to stand up for clean water and its citizens must hold them accountable, ensuring we all play by the same rules."

Virginia

Virginia must accelerate pollution reductions from agriculture and urban/suburban runoff. CBF is working with the General Assembly to:

  • Build upon Governor McAuliffe's budget proposal for farmland conservation practices and ensure that funding sufficient to achieve our Bay goals is secured in the final budget.
  • Hold the line of Virginia's new stormwater management program, allowing the program to continue to mature and protect our local streams and the Bay.
  • Work with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to strengthen Virginia's oyster fisheries laws in order to support the oyster industry and protect a vital resource.

"While Virginia is currently on track to meet its short-term goals, there are growing concerns that Virginia will fall short of our goals for reducing pollution from farm operations, creating the need to secure less cost-effective reductions from other sources," said CBF's Virginia Executive Director Ann Jennings.

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