Report: Bay Health Improving, But More Work Needed

1/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Janice F. Booth Maryland Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The overall health of the Chesapeake Bay has improved 10 percent in less than five years, according to a report released last week by The Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The 2012 State of the Bay report based its conclusions on three categories: pollution, habitat and fisheries.

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

Among the significant points of improvement in the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem:

Decreased phosphorous levels and decreased “dead zones” or areas of insufficient dissolved oxygen.

Increased acreage of “resource lands,” preserved from development or changed in usage to protect wetlands and tributaries and bay shores.

Over the last four years, Pennsylvania has preserved approximately 37,000 additional acres, and Virginia increased its land preservation by 23,000 acres. Maryland preserved only half as much additional acreage as it had in 2010, but passed the Sustainable Growth and Agriculture Preservation Act restricting and controlling development of forested and farm land — a powerful tool in the state’s hands.

Increases in the bay’s populations of blue crabs and oysters reflect improved fisheries management procedures. Additionally, both the rockfish, or striped bass, and shad populations remain steady.

Despite the improvements, the average of the scores for the 13 indicators correlate to an overall letter grade of D+, “a sobering reminder that there is a great deal left to do,” the report stated.

A perfect score of 100 would represent the bay described by Captain John Smith in his exploration narratives of the early 1600s, according to the report. A score of 70 or better, however, would earn an A+ grade and indicate a bay restored.

So what does this mean for the agriculture community? Have the sacrifices, both economic and personal, made by farmers been recognized? Are the burdens of responsible stewardship of the bay’s riches being shared?

“We (the Chesapeake Bay Foundation) know that agriculture is one of the best active uses of the bay’s coastal land,” said CBF President William C. Baker.

Conservation measures implemented on farms have helped significantly in achieving these milestones. The highest score in the report was a B+ for forested buffers. Much of the approximately 110,000 miles of trees and shrubs planted and maintained by farmers reduces runoff pollution and encourages wildlife habitat.

The report indicates that encouraging and preserving federal, state and local investments in bay restoration projects at both the regional and local levels are goals for the foundation. The resources spent on good science provided the data needed to create and defend bay restoration as a wise investment.

Since the early 1960s, when CBF was founded, the organization has established statistical records to accurately convey the Chesapeake Bay’s condition. The State of the Bay report and the index used are measurement tools renowned for their serviceability.

“This index and the studies that produce it were the first in the nation, and it is the longest-lasting (environmental) health index in the country,” Baker said. “Other regions across the country have used it as a model.”

These statistics about the bay and its tributaries and wetlands are respected and used to encourage cooperation between businesses and government.

The foundation’s 2013 priorities in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia begin with economics — working to secure funding at the state level, as well as programs and technical assistance at the local level.

“Pennsylvania must increase efforts to reduce pollution from agriculture and stormwater. Maryland needs to provide money and technical assistance to local jurisdictions through the Bay Trust Fund. And Virginia must remain a partner with local governments, utility operators, and farmers by providing state funding,” the report stated.

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

“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,” said CBF’s Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost. “Innovative technologies, creative approaches to reducing pollution and long-term financing will all be necessary to help local governments achieve their goals.”

LeeAnn Murray, acting executive director for Pennsylvania, said, “Pennsylvania has made progress toward meeting Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint goals, but we have a lot more to do. Now is the time for Pennsylvania to ramp up efforts to reduce pollution and invest in communities and local water quality. Many (communities) are integrating water quality improvements with the economic, revitalization and beautification efforts in their towns.”

The foundation is working to ensure that financial support at the federal level is also forthcoming.

The struggle is, as Baker described it, “messy.” There are no simple solutions.

“Saving the bay will never be less expensive than it is today,” he said.

But the State of the Bay report indicates that the investment is paying off.

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