Bay health in 2009 met 45% of goals

Some express disappointment over annual report card

April 08, 2010|By Meredith Cohn |

The Chesapeake Bay and its 64,000-square-mile watershed made modest improvements during the past year, according to a report card on the bay's health released Wednesday. But those who contributed to the assessment and other observers say that after 25 years of efforts, they were disappointed by the pace of gains.

About 45 percent of goals were met in 2009, an increase over the year before, according to the Bay Barometer. The annual report is produced by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a coalition of federal, state and nonprofit groups leading restoration of the nation's largest estuary.

"There were some improvements, but the bay was still at 45 out of 100," said Jeffrey Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, during a news conference in Annapolis to unveil the results. "That tells us the bay remains in degraded condition."

The report said some gains were made in water clarity, underwater bay grasses, bottom-dwelling species and blue crabs. Dissolved oxygen was down.

On the restoration front, the report said the bay program reached 64 percent of its goals on pollution reduction, oyster reefs, forest buffers and environmental education in schools. But while improvements were made to wastewater treatment plants, reducing the harmful nutrients, there hasn't been much progress on reducing runoff from farms or air pollution from cars and power plants.

Further, the report said, more people moved into the area and their activities offset many of the gains. Since 1950, the number of people in the watershed has doubled, the report says. Agricultural runoff is the bay's biggest source of pollution, but polluted storm water runoff from urban and suburban areas is increasing the fastest.

Rich Batiuk, the bay program's associate director for science, said the mixed and somewhat disappointing results are common. Some years are a little better than others, largely depending on the weather: More rain means more polluted runoff. All of the recent rain could mean that this year will be a little worse.

But in the report and during the news conference, Batiuk, Lape and others pointed to areas of potential progress. The six watershed states and Washington have set new, short-term goals on nitrogen and phosphorus to speed cleanup and increase accountability. And an executive order from President Barack Obama puts new emphasis on pollution reduction.

Lape called the report a mix of "hope and reality."

Others in the environmental community said residents must cut down on fertilizer and driving and demand more from lawmakers. As an example, they asked for support for a bill sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, to expand federal authority to regulate all sources of bay pollution.

On Wednesday, however, no one said that change would come quickly. Cardin's bill, for example, has met opposition from lawmakers in neighboring states. New federal regulations enacted since the executive order on pollution will take years to take effect. And a state law to curb runoff from development was modified recently to grandfather many projects.

"People of this region who are disappointed year in and year out with the results of this report card need to contact our elected officials and hold them accountable for the repeated failures to restore clean water," said Hilary Harp Falk of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, which represents nonprofit groups in the bay area.

Beth McGee, senior water-quality scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that pressure won't come until bay supporters do a better job of communicating the link between people's actions and the cleanliness of local drinking water and recreational and economic opportunities. "Clean water has everyone's support; they just have to see the connection," she said.

Some environmental activists said the outcome for the bay is not certain.

"This annual report has become a broken record, and it's time to fix it," said Tommy Landers, a policy advocate for Environment Maryland. "Fortunately, we have the best chance yet to make significant progress on bay restoration. Some of our leaders are stepping up to the plate. The question is whether they'll swing hard or bunt."

What you can do
The report offers some steps that the 17 million people in the bay watershed can take to help improve the estuary's health:

•Don't fertilize your lawn because that adds to nutrient pollution

•Pick up dog waste to keep bacteria out of the bay

•Use a phosphate-free dishwasher detergent to reduce phosphorus in wastewater

•Drive less to reduce emissions

•Plant native trees, shrubs and wildflowers to filter pollution and attract wildlife

•Install a rain barrel or rain garden to collect and absorb runoff

•Volunteer to clean up a stream, creek or river in your community

An earlier version misattributed some statements concerning a bill sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. The Sun regrets the error.

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