In the summer of 2012, the Chesapeake Bay had the smallest low-oxygen “dead zones” in a quarter century. This improvement in water quality –- along with less phosphorus pollution, a resurgent blue crab population, increasing survival of oysters, and an expansion in forested lands –- were reasons the health of the Bay ticked upward last year, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2012 “State of the Bay” report. Overall, the Bay’s health index has risen 10 percent in less than five years.
However, the overall improvement last year was modest: a 1 point increase, to a score of 32 on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 representing a pristine Bay, and 70 an achievable goal of a relatively healthy and stable estuary, according to the report, which was released this morning.
On the downside, underwater grasses in the Bay declined –- with high temperatures in the southern part of the Chesapeake contributing to the death of eelgrass. To read the full report, click here.
“While the Bay is still dangerously out of balance, I am cautiously optimistic for the future,” CBF President Will Baker (above) said. “The federal and state Clean Water Blueprint for the Chesapeake Bay is in place and beginning to work.”
These plans for clean water –- which require a roughly 25 percent reduction in pollution by 2025 -- have been challenged in court by special interest groups, including from the homebuilding and agricultural industries. CBF is fighting back in court and working hard with its allies to make sure the pollution limits are implemented.
During the state legislative sessions starting soon in Virginia and Maryland, CBF will be pushing for increased investments upgrades to sewage treatment plants and farm runoff pollution control projects. CBF is also advocating for a 20 percent reduction in the annual catch of a fish called menhaden that are critical links in the Bay’s food chain, but which have been overharvested by industrial fleets.
“It is critical that the 2013 General Assembly approve Gov. McDonnell’s $217 million budget admendment for clean water obligations and that legislators approve a menhaden management plan consistent with the other Atlantic states,” said CBF Virginia Executive Director Ann Jennings.
CBF’s Maryland Executive Director, Alison Prost, said that CBF will also be working closely with county and city governments to help find the most cost-effective ways to meet federal and state pollution limits for the Bay.
“We understand that there are concerns at the local level about how to implement the Clean Water Blueprint, primarily due to the uncertainty surrounding the cost,” Prost said. “We share these concerns, but believe that solutions exist or are on the horizon. Innovative technologies, creative approaches to reducing pollution, and long-term financing will all be necessary to help local governments achieve their goals.”
Here are some of the highlights from CBF’s 2012 State of the Bay report:
• Despite heavy rainfall and runoff pollution from tropical storms in 2011, the Bay did not experience large low-oxygen “dead zones” in the summer of 2012, as some had expected. In fact, the size of the “dead zones” last summer was the second smallest on record since 1985 (after the summer of 1985, which had smaller dead zones). This may suggest that gradual reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution over the decades making the Bay more resilient.
• At the end of 2011, 92 percent of the oysters sampled in Maryland waters had survived the year (the most since 1985). Relatively dry weather conditions in 2012 likely also helped the survival of oysters. A billion oysters have been planted in the Bay since 2010. These are encouraging signs, although populations of oysters in the Bay remain at a tiny fraction of historic levels and their overall health index grade still remains an “F,” according to the CBF report.
• Populations of blue crabs in the Bay hit an estimated 750 million in 2012, the highest level since the mid 1990s. The increase was largely the result of restrictions on catching female crabs that Virginia and Maryland put in place four years ago.
• Although bad weather conditions (excessive heat and rainfall) caused declines in underwater grasses declined in the southern Bay, grasses survived in the northern Bay, where grassbeds around the mouth of the Susquehanna River have tripled in size over the past 20 years. The discrepancy is largely because the species most common in the southern Bay (eelgrass) is extremely sensitive to rising water temperatures caused by global warming.
For more, read all of the details here.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation