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Chesapeake Bay score slips after rainy year

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2013 file photo, Capt. David Whitelock prepares for a day of oyster dredging on the skipjack Hilda M. Willing as the sun begins to rise over Deal Island, Md. President Donald Trump’s administration says it’s time for state and local governments to pay for cleanups of iconic but polluted waterways such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. The proposed federal budget for 2018 would eliminate $427 million for regional water restoration initiatives.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

FILE – In this Dec. 20, 2013 file photo, Capt. David Whitelock prepares for a day of oyster dredging on the skipjack Hilda M. Willing as the sun begins to rise over Deal Island. The health of the bay took a step backward in 2018, largely because of the record-setting rainfalls that washed sentiment downstream. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The health of the Chesapeake Bay dropped a point in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s biennial State of the Bay report, but there were signs for optimism following a historic year for rain in the mid-Atlantic.

The bay received a score of 33, a score the foundation equated to a D+. The foundation has set a goal of 40 by 2025.

“One year does not a trend make,” Beth McGee, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s director of science, said. “We did have a bad year, but there are signs that the bay is increasing its resiliency.”

Last year was a historically rainy year across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Baltimore and Washington set all-time records for the amount of rain and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, fell just inches shy of its all-time record.

A lot of heavy rains can be bad for pollution and for the bay because the water sends pollutants from city streets and farm fields into the waterways.

While Maryland is on pace to meet its goals to keep those pollutants on land instead of running off into the water, there is concern about Pennsylvania meeting its goals in time for the 2025 implementation deadline, McGee said.

“The one major concern we have is Pennsylvania,” she said. There are issues with agriculture in Pennsylvania and “whether Pennsylvania will up their game and achieve goals.”

Of particular concern are nutrients and sediments that come down the Susquehanna River. In the past, much of these nutrients and sediments have been kept from entering the bay at the Conowingo Dam, but the dam is now full, and those pollutants spill into the Chesapeake.

Last August, Pennsylvania admitted that its cleanup efforts have fallen behind those of watershed neighbors like Maryland and New York.

“We are clearly behind in terms of a midpoint assessment, but we’ve taken that as an opportunity to double down,” Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said at a meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council.

Climate change could mean these types of heavy rains become more of a norm than an outlier. That means more has to be done to shore up pollution plans, McGee said.

“I think climate change is a concern,” she said. “One of the things that the states, if they implement their cleanup plans, one of the things they will do is try to implement measures that will keep pollution on the land rather than letting it run off.”

The report found other signs for encouragement. It takes a look at 13 indicators across three categories – pollution, habitat and fisheries. Those indicators are measured against what the healthiest possible bay would look like.

The growth in underwater grasses has been positive, McGee said. These grasses can become habitats for crabs, fish and other underwater creatures.

In 2017, more than 100,000 acres of underwater grasses were recorded, the most acreage recorded since the mid-1980s. Numbers are still coming in for 2018, and while the increased pollution means those grasses likely took a hit, early reports from scientists suggest the grasses are hanging on, McGee said.

A hopeful goal of 70 on the report card would represent a saved Chesapeake Bay, the foundation said.


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