Chesapeake Bay health improves, new report shows

ANNAPOLIS — The health of the Chesapeake Bay improved slightly last year with underwater grasses the only area suffering a setback, according to an assessment released Wednesday by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The report sounded cautious optimism for a decades old effort now under tougher federal guidance.

Bay grasses were hurt by high water temperatures in the lower bay and heavy rains that washed sediment and pollution into local waterways. All other indicators either improved or stayed the same, with crabs, oysters and oxygen levels in bay water all seeing gains.

The foundation gave the bay an overall score of 32 out of 100, up one point over the last report in 2010 and four points since 2008.

“The bay is still dangerously out of balance, the rivers and streams are still impaired, but it’s getting better and that’s the good news,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker said, adding that the new federally-led bay restoration strategy is beginning to work.

The strategy being led by the federal Environmental Protection Agency sets pollution limits for everyone in the six-state bay watershed. Farmers and agriculture interests are concerned because farm runoff is the single largest source of bay pollutants, according to the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay model. And while agriculture has cut its pollution, the strategy calls for even more reductions from all sectors. County officials have also expressed cost concerns.

The foundation said its 2013 priorities include working with lawmakers in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to make sure money is available for local communities and to identify cost-effective strategies.

In Virginia, that includes ensuring menhaden harvest reductions voted on recently by the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission are implemented. Virginia is home to a large processing plant responsible for much of the East Coast catch of the fish that provides food for a number of species as well as helping improve water quality through filter feeding.

The foundation’s executive director in Virginia, Ann Jennings, said it’s critical for the General Assembly to approve $217 million in budget amendments proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell for water quality programs.

“Much work remains to be done, however, if Virginia is to stay on track to meet its bay clean water blueprint goals,” Jennings said.

The state’s secretary of natural resources, Doug Domenech, agreed that “progress must continue” on the bay’s restoration.

“This is good policy for Virginia’s economy, Virginia’s citizens and Virginia’s future,” he wrote in an email.

LeeAnn Murray, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s acting director for Pennsylvania, said the state has made progress but nearly a quarter of its streams and rivers are impaired. Pennsylvania priorities include helping local governments cut storm water runoff and farmers reduce agricultural pollution.

In Maryland, the foundation said it will work to get state lawmakers to fully fund the Bay Trust Fund, which provides money and technical assistance to local governments. The bay foundation said it would also work to defend gains made in combating pollution from septic systems and sprawl development.

The bay watershed also covers parts of Delaware, New York and West Virginia.

The report looked at 13 indicators, of which five improved, seven stayed the same, and only bay grasses declined.

The bay’s striped bass population got the best score at 69, unchanged from 2010. Oxygen levels in bay water registered the biggest improvement, increasing six points, but still only received 25 out of a possible 100 points.

Baker said that was in spite of big storms that led to predictions of large low oxygen areas known as “dead zones.”

“The bay is showing a certain resilience which we haven’t seen in many years,” Baker said. “That gives me pause, that gives me reason to be optimistic.

“While there has been some squabbling at the extreme edges, the cooperation between individuals, businesses, and government has led to real progress.”

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