Thursday, January 12, 2017

Chesapeake Bay Get a Gentleman’s C

Last week the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released their bi-annual State of the Bay health index score.The health of the Bay has increased by over six percent bringing us to a C−, from the D+ received in 2014. 
from CBF
The 2016 State of the Bay Report scores the health of the bay at 34 out of 100, a C- according to their scoring system which measures the current state of the Bay against the unspoiled Bay ecosystem described by Captain John Smith in the 1600s, with extensive forests and wetlands, clear water, abundant fish and oysters, and lush growths of submerged vegetation would rate a 100 on their scale. That was a time when this region was 95% old growth forests and sparsely populated. The current goals of all the Environmental Protection Agency mandated Watershed Implementation Plans is a grade of 70, which would represent a saved Bay according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation report uses 13 indicators in three categories: pollution, habitat, and fisheries to offer an assessment of the health of the Chesapeake Bay. If you recall the EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that were then partitioned to the various states and river basins. Each of the states and Washington DC were required to submit and have approved by the EPA a detailed plan of how they intend to achieve the pollution reduction goals assigned to them. These plans are called the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation refers to them as the “Clean Water Blueprint.”

For the first time, the CBF lowered the score for forest buffers—those strips of trees near waterways that protect them from soil erosion and other pollutants. Despite federal and state commitments to increase planting, forest buffer plantings in 2015 (the most recent data) were the lowest in the last 16 years. The states planted only about 440 streamside acres (versus an EPA mandated goal of 14,000 acres annually) along the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. In addition, states typically report only planted buffers, not those that are removed, suggesting to the CBF the data may be overestimating progress over time.

Tidal and non-tidal wetlands are among the most important natural resources in the Chesapeake Bay region. Wetlands—swamps; bogs; salt marshes; many shallow areas of our rivers, creeks, and the Bay; and even some forested areas—provide valuable wildlife habitat and act as natural filters. They improve water quality by trapping and treating polluted runoff. The Chesapeake Bay States committed to a goal of restoring 85,000 acres of wetlands by 2025. The most recent data (2015) suggests the states have achieved only 10% of that goal. Though we are moving in the right direction, progress is too slow.

Growing mostly in shallow water, underwater grass beds are critical to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. They provide habitat for fish and crabs, add oxygen to the water, help remove pollutants from the water, and trap sediment. Between 2014 and 2015, underwater grasses increased by 21% to 91,621 acres. This has resulted in the improved scores in fisheries. The coast-wide rockfish (striped bass) population appears to have stabilized after a ten-year decline. The total number of crabs has increased dramatically since 2014, from 297 to 553 million, as estimated from the annual winter survey. The Oyster harvests exceeded one million bushels in 2015 for the first time in thirty years, though they fell a bit in 2016. The return of shad to the Susquehanna River improved slightly in 2016 as did the number of juveniles hatched in the river. A new agreement to improve fish passage at the Conowingo Dam holds great promise.

The Conowingo Dam brings up the Susquehanna River. Starting in Cooperstown, New York, and flowing 444 miles to the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River basin drains 27,500-square-miles of land and contains over 49,000 miles of rivers and streams. Half of the freshwater in the Chesapeake is from the Susquehanna and the impact the Susquehanna River has on the Bay is hard to overestimate. The Susquehanna remains a significant source of pollution to the Bay. Polluted runoff coming from farm fields and urban and suburban developments are the primary sources affecting the health, way of life, and economies of people in the watershed portion of the Commonwealth and those downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. In October 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the EPA together committed $28.7 million in new federal and state funding to focus on the people, places, and practices that would accelerate pollution reductions from agriculture, the “Best Management Practices cost share funding.” This initial investment will help to jumpstart efforts to reduce pollution entering the Susquehanna but much more is needed.

In Virginia where there is a budget shortfall, Governor McAuliffe put forth the Biennial Budget that reduces Best Management Practices cost-share implementation from the current level of $62 million to $8 million.

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