Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) measured a modest improvement in Chesapeake Bay health in 2015, once again giving the estuary a “C” in their annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Although the “C” grade has remained the same since 2012, the score of 53 percent marks one of the three highest since 1986: only 1992 and 2002 scored as high or higher. But unlike 2015, both those years accompanied major droughts, and according to UMCES researchers, that makes these results particularly notable.
“We’d expect to see improvements after a drought year because nutrients aren’t being washed into the Bay, fueling algae blooms and poor water quality,” said Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications at UMCES, in a release. “However, in 2015 streamflow was below normal, but nowhere near the drought conditions in 1992 and 2002. Thus, the high score for 2015 indicate that we’re making progress reducing what’s coming off the land.”
The Bay Health Index is based on several indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses and the strength of certain fish stocks, including blue crab and striped bass. Most of these indicators improved over the previous year; only phosphorus pollution worsened from 2014 to 2015.
"The information being released today by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science is very positive and consistent with the trends the Chesapeake Bay Program has been witnessing over the past few years,” said Nick DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. “We should take the opportunity to celebrate these results, but we should also recognize that the long term success of our work to restore water quality and the health of this vitally important ecosystem will depend on stepping up and sustaining our efforts over the long-term to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution discharges to streams and rivers throughout the watershed."
A spotted salamander rests near the edge of a vernal pool in Edgewater, Maryland. Named for their bright yellow spots, these amphibians thrive in the swamps and bottomland forests of the Chesapeake Bay region.
The first warm spring rains prompt the annual migrations of these salamanders, along with wood frogs and other vernal pool breeders—species that depend on these small, seasonal bodies of water to reproduce. Vernal pools are short-lived forest ponds, fed by snow, rain or groundwater. They only stay wet for about seven months, just long enough for a cascade of frogs and salamanders to use them as a home for their developing young.
Areas that house vernal pools are often vulnerable to development, endangering the breeding grounds of critters like the spotted salamander, which will return to the same pool year after year to reproduce. But conserved lands like the Forests Pools Preserve near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, provide an oasis for these ephemeral ponds—and the species that depend on them.
Photo by Will Parson
It’s a gray Saturday morning in Washington, D.C. The sky is full of clouds, threatening rain, but Kenilworth Park isn’t empty. In fact, a large group of people are gathered around a tent in the park’s large, open field. But they’re not here for flag football or barbecuing; they’re here to work.
Today is the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) Earth Day Cleanup, and all of these people came out to Kenilworth Park to volunteer. As the overcast sky begins to shed its first drops of rain, they break off into smaller groups and head out to different sections of the park. Some begin scouring the field for trash, others head toward the Anacostia River—which cuts through the park—and some begin working on one of the river’s smaller tributaries.
While the Kenilworth group is large, they’re just a small portion of the 2,400 volunteers who signed up to take part in today’s cleanup at 31 different sites around D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland. Today seems like a large-scale cleanup effort—because it is—but AWS’s day of action is part of an even larger network of cleanups called Project Clean Stream, hosted by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. For the past 13 years, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has coordinated cleanups around the Chesapeake region. This year, cleanups ran from Sandbridge, Virginia, all the way up to Westfield, Pennsylvania.
For some of the volunteers at Kenilworth Park, this is their first time participating in a cleanup. Many were drawn to the event through Broccoli City Fest, a local concert that offered tickets to people in exchange for community service at a number of designated locations. One volunteer, Hilina Kibron, remarked, “I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own time. This actually forces me to do it.”
For experts and newcomers alike, the day is a learning opportunity. After just a few hours of picking up bottle after bottle and a seemingly endless stream of Styrofoam containers, volunteers reflected on personal changes they wanted to make, and hopes they had for others. After cleaning up plastic bottles and even an oil drum, William Klein said, “I hope that it will bring more awareness about littering and trying prevent that so in the future we won’t have to have days like these because people will be more sustainable.”
Despite the trash, many saw the beauty of Kenilworth Park and the Anacostia River, and wanted others to see that as well. They expressed hope about the value that a clean natural space could bring to the community and its residents. Fajr Chestnut, volunteering with her young daughter Ryanna, summed it up best: “The river means health and sustainability and economic development, and it’s the basis for the community. Once it’s to the level where it’s supposed to be, people will be able to have recreation. It’s bettering the community; it’s making it look better, making it sound better, making it feel better. So it’s important to have a clean river.”
The federal agencies leading the watershed-wide effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay have released a progress report highlighting work completed in the 2015 fiscal year.
As part of the progress made last year, federal agencies and their state and local partners completed initial construction and seeding of a 350-acre oyster reef in Harris Creek. They opened miles of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia streams to eels, shad and other diadromous fish, restoring habitat for some of the watershed’s most critical critters. They worked to conserve and restore forests and wetlands, protecting water and habitat resources throughout the Bay region. And they launched efforts to respond to the threat of toxic contaminants and their effects on fish and wildlife.
Since the signing of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order in 2009, the federal agencies and their partners have helped make significant progress toward restoring the health of the Bay. In fiscal year 2015, federal agencies on the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay spent more than $515 million on Bay restoration and protection.
The 2015 progress report marks the final report exclusive to the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay; federal partners will continue to track their protection and restoration efforts as part of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. The Bay Program recently released work plans outlining the short-term actions partners will take over the next two years toward achieving the goals of the Watershed Agreement.
Learn more about the 2015 progress report on the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order website.