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Bay Grade Rises From D Plus to C. How Fair Is The Report Card?

OmalleyandgriffinMaryland Governor Martin O’Malley this morning announced that the Chesapeake Bay’s health has gradually improved over the last three years, from a D plus grade back in 2006 to a C in 2009.

"Today is one of those days that should at least give us a glimmer of hope amid the gloom of the degraded quality of these waters that (the Bay) is not dead and that progress is still possible," O'Malley, pictured at left, said during a press conference at Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County.

The grades were issued by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Some might be skeptical of such an upbeat announcement, after so many years of broken promises by government to clean up the nation’s largest estuary.

But there are, in fact, some signs of modest improvement in the Bay.  Give credit where credit is due. O’Malley’s administration worked with Virginia two years ago to impose restrictions on the catching of female crabs that led to a more than doubling in the Bay’s blue crab population.

Without the political risk of imposing those controversial regulations, the Chesapeake’s iconic species would likely still be in a free fall.

Moreover, the report card issued today showed that water clarity across the Bay increased by an average of 12 percent in 2009, compared to the previous year. The overall health of the Bay was at its best since 2002.  Aquatic grasses, dissolved oxygen, algae levels and water clarity all improved in the mid Bay.  Aquatic grasses increased for the third year in a row in the lower Eastern Shore. And in the lower bay, large improvements in water clarity contributed to the highest overall health score in eight years, the report card states.

But some sober notes are also warranted.  Much of the improvement in the Bay last year was due to lower than normal rainfall in Pennsylvania and New York, which meant that less pollution was flushed down the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake.

In spite of the C grade, the Bay continues to fail the legal test of water quality, as established by EPA and the federal Clean Water Act.  The Bay remains on the federal ‘impaired water’ list of waterways that officially are not meeting water quality standards.  Only 12 percent of the Bay and its tidal rivers met standards for healthy oxygen levels in 2009.

Moreover, most Maryland rivers -- including the Patuxent, Severn, Patapsco and Choptank -- received grades of D, D minus or F on this report card –- except for a few on the upper western shore that earned marks of B minus. 

Here are some other troubling facts: EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program released its own report card last month, called the “Bay Barometer,” that said the Chesapeake is at less than half of optimal health. “The bay remains in poor condition, receiving an overall health score of 45 percent, with 100 percent representing a fully-restored ecosystem,” the Bay Barometer for 2009 says.

O'Malley did not try to over-state the health of the Bay during the event this morning.  “The Bay has been on life support for the last 30 or 40 years," O'Malley said. "We need to get her off of life support, we need to get her walking again.... None of us can be happy with a grade of C....It shows that we still have a lot of work to do."

He is right that none of us should be happy with the overall state of the Bay.  But there is hope in the fact that, at least with the blue crab regulations, Maryland and Virginia have proven that when government acts aggressively to implement science-based regulations, the Bay responds.  And after all these years, it may now be starting to respond by climbing out of that hospital bed.

To get more data about the Bay's health, visit the University of Maryland "Ecocheck" website, or the BayStat website, or EPA's Bay Barometer.  To read the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's response to today's report card, click here.

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By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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