Report lowers bay's grade

Foundation says water less clear, with fewer crabs, more phosphorus

December 04, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

The Chesapeake Bay once again got a poor grade from the largest regional environmental watchdog group, a rating pushed further downward from last year's score due to increased phosphorus pollution, decreased water clarity and fewer blue crabs.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation put out its annual State of the Bay report yesterday, two days before the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia hold their annual bay meeting. The foundation gave the estuary a score of 28, which translated to a "D." Last year's score was 29.

Foundation President William Baker called the findings unacceptable, but hardly surprising. The bay's health has been teetering for decades, struggling under heavy loads of pollution from sewage treatment plants, storm water runoff and fertilizer from farms.

Baker blamed the federal government in general and President Bush in particular for the lack of cleanup progress. Since 1984, the Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal-state partnership that includes the Environmental Protection Agency, has been overseeing the bay's cleanup.

"The Chesapeake Bay Program has been acclaimed as a model of federal-state partnership. Unfortunately, the federal participation has been a model for failure under this administration," Baker said. He said the federal government continues to allow power plants to emit large amounts of mercury and nitrogen into the atmosphere and has cut federal funds for sewage upgrades.

Chesapeake Bay Program director Jeffrey Lape said he is optimistic that tomorrow's executive council meeting, which will include not only the three governors but also the EPA's administrator, will focus on "significant actions" to move the cleanup along.

"There's been significant good work in the past, but more needs to be done," said Lape, who has been in the job since April. "Development and growth are outpacing our progress. In other words, the impacts of existing development, plus the additional impacts of 170,000 new residents with their cars, houses, roofs and lawns, are adding new nutrients faster than we're able to take them out."

Baker also said the states did little between 2000 and 2004 to clean up the bay and are only now making strides. In 2004, Maryland passed its "flush tax," which has generated millions of dollars to upgrade sewage treatment plants. In 2006-2007, Virginia committed significant amounts of money to upgrading its plants.

Despite those investments, the large amount of nitrogen flowing into the bay from runoff, farm fertilizer and sewage treatment plants drew a grade of F, just as it did last year. Phosphorus loads increased by six points.

Water clarity received a failing score, slightly worse than last year's, because of the increasing amounts of algae in the water that have led to fish kills in both the Potomac River and the Inner Harbor.

Underwater grasses, oysters and available oxygen in the bay also received failing grades, as they did in 2006. Crabs fared slightly worse than last year, scoring a "C" amid reports of poor reproduction.

In some categories, such as rockfish and forested buffers, the scores were again high. But while phosphorus, crabs and water quality worsened from 2006, nothing in the report showed improvements.

The foundation's report comes during a time of bad news about the bay. Last week, the Bay Program released its summer data for 2007 and noted that, despite reduced runoff because of drought, conditions in the bay did not improve. And though environmentalists had high hopes for the 2007 farm bill, which includes millions of dollars for bay farmers to implement conservation practices, that legislation has stalled in Congress.

But several staffers said they were encouraged by the General Assembly's promise during last month's special session to set aside $50 million for bay cleanup efforts.

"The only way you can hope to change it is to keep putting out there the causes of it and hope to have some solutions," said foundation senior scientist Bill Goldsborough.

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