Bay's health is not improving

EPA report finds cleanup efforts have yielded only 'small successes'

March 20, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,

The Chesapeake Bay is in poor health and didn't get any better last year, according to the chief government program charged with restoring it.

In an unusually frank status report, the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program concluded that the estuary "continues to have poor water quality, degraded habitats and low populations of many species of fish and shellfish."

Despite some "small successes," the agency gave the bay's health a grade of 38 percent, with 100 percent representing a fully restored ecosystem.

The causes of the bay's troubles are well-known: overdoses of nutrients and sediment from farms, runoff from urban and suburban development, sewage and air pollution, the report points out.

But the cleanup efforts made over the past 25 years by Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the federal government are failing to make a dent, the report concluded, and "bolder action" is needed.

"Our progress over the past two decades is clearly not adequate," said J. Charles Fox, the newly appointed bay adviser to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. He pledged that the Obama administration would provide "the leadership necessary to improve these results."

Observers said the EPA report was more candid than previous annual updates, which had drawn criticism for claiming cleanup progress unsupported by water- quality monitoring.

William C. Dennison, an environmental scientist who oversees another annual bay report card prepared by the University of Maryland, said he thought the EPA assessment was still too rosy.

Water quality in many places isn't just unchanged, it is worsening, he said. He said hard-to-measure pollution running off the land appears to be overwhelming any progress made by sewage treatment plants and factories.

"I'm not convinced we're on the right trajectory," he said.

The report cites a few bright spots. It says that the states and federal government have already surpassed targets for preserving land and opening streams to spawning fish. But the bay's water quality is only 21 percent of what it needs to be, with silt and algae clouding the water and with more harmful chemicals getting into it. Richard Batiuk, associate director of the EPA's bay office, said pollution would have to be reduced much more before water quality would show any signs of improvement.

Bay grasses, which provide shelter for fish and crabs, did offer some encouraging news - increasing by 18 percent. But even there, officials cautioned, the overall grass growth obscured troubling declines in the Tangier Sound, the heart of the bay's crabbing industry.

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