Our latest look at Chesapeake Bay health reveals an ecosystem in recovery. While the watershed continues to struggle against development, pollution and other challenges, a handful of the environmental indicators presented in Bay Barometer—including American shad, striped bass and underwater grass abundance—have shown signs of resilience.
Released today, Bay Barometer: Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed offers a science-based snapshot of conditions in the nation’s largest estuary. The data in Bay Barometer reflect the Bay’s health over the course of many years and, in some cases, decades. By tracking changes in this data over time, scientists can better understand ecological patterns and the long-term effects of our restoration work.
According to experts with the Chesapeake Bay Program, the Bay remains impaired. Scientists have seen no significant changes in the last decade of water quality data and a sizeable drop in the abundance of blue crabs. But communities have continued to reduce the nutrient and sediment pollution that has long plagued the Bay, and some living resources have improved in the face of challenges. Underwater grass acreage has risen 24 percent, American shad have continued to return to their Potomac River spawning grounds and the relative abundance of young striped bass in both Maryland and Virginia waters has recovered from the low recruitment seen in 2012.
(Quote), said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
Continuing to investigate the environmental indicators summarized in Bay Barometer will move us toward the ground-breaking goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which guides our work to restore, conserve and protect the Bay. In Bay Barometer, we offer our data in their clearest form so you can join our experts in assessing the health of our ecosystem and the progress we are making toward restoring it. Each of the almost 18 million people who live within this watershed can help bring it back to health. To learn more, Take Action.
Bay Backpack, a website for environmental educators in the Chesapeake Bay region, was recently relaunched with a new design, making it even easier for teachers to find resources that bring the Bay and its surrounding lands into their classrooms.
Teachers and educators can use the site’s updated design to find more than 750 lesson plans, books, curriculum guides and other teaching resources that are grouped into themed collections–including Bay animals and habitats, people and culture, Earth system science, land use and water quality. An interactive map of nearly 350 field studies allows teachers to search by location, grade level and subject matter to find hands-on learning opportunities outside the classroom. Bay Backpack also continues to provide a catalog of professional development and funding opportunities that support environmental education efforts, and the new responsive design means users can easily access resources on both desktop and mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets.
In the recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, representatives from each of the six watershed states and Washington, D.C., committed to providing every student in the region with at least one meaningful watershed educational experience, or MWEE, in elementary, middle and high school. Meaningful watershed educational experiences are investigative projects that allow students the opportunity to interact directly with their environment and learn about how the Bay, its rivers and streams and its surrounding lands function as a system. Resources provided through Bay Backpack help teachers from across the Bay area engage students in these educational experiences.
“Bay Backpack is a great tool to help meet the commitments of the new Watershed Agreement,” said Shannon Sprague, Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program Education Workgroup. “It directly supports our efforts to get every student outdoors and learning about their environment.”
To learn more about what the Bay Program is doing to provide each student in the region with the skills to protect and restore local waters and lands, explore the Environmental Literacy goal of the Watershed Agreement.
Learn more about Bay Backpack and the educational resources it provides.
The amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that flowed from nine major rivers into the Chesapeake Bay remained below the 25-year average in 2013. While scientists expect this to have a positive impact on the long-term health of the nation’s largest estuary, much of the Bay’s tidal waters remain impaired: between 2011 and 2013, just 29 percent of the water quality standards necessary to support underwater plants and animals were achieved.
Excess nutrients and sediment are among the leading causes of the Bay’s poor health. Nitrogen and phosphorus can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. Sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Lowering the amount of nutrients and sediment moving from our streets, lawns and farm fields into the water is a critical step in the restoration of the Bay, and scientists have attributed the below-average pollution loads of 2013 to below-average river flow and the pollution-reducing practices our partners have put in place on the land.
Because pollution in our rivers has a direct impact on water quality in the Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Program tracks both environmental indicators to gain a wider picture of watershed health.
Pollution loads and trends
Our partners at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitor nutrient and suspended sediment loads delivered from the large watersheds located upstream of nine river monitoring stations to the Chesapeake Bay. Together, these stations—which are located on the Appomattox, Choptank, James, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Patuxent, Potomac, Rappahannock and Susquehanna rivers—reflect loads delivered to the Bay from 78 percent of its watershed. Data show that nutrient and sediment loads measured in water year 2013 were below the long-term average.
Water quality standards achievement
The Chesapeake Bay Program measures progress toward the achievement of water quality standards in the Bay and its tidal tributaries using three environmental factors: dissolved oxygen, water clarity or underwater grass abundance, and chlorophyll a. Data are assessed in three-year periods. After more than a decade of steady improvement between 1989 and 2002, the attainment of water quality standards has seen mixed results. Changes seen in the past 10 years have not been statistically significant, and it is likely that the slow recovery of underwater grasses in the Upper Bay has stalled some water quality improvements.
Underwater grasses offer important habitat to underwater species and have a direct impact on water quality: healthy bay grass beds add oxygen to the water, absorb nutrient pollution, reduce wave energy and help suspended and potentially light-blocking particles like sediment settle to the bottom. Between 2009 and 2012, unfavorable growing conditions caused bay grasses to decline across the region. In 2011, for instance, heavy rains and the resulting runoff clouded the water during the spring growing season. That fall, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee muddied the water again. Because water quality is reported in three-year assessment periods—and the most recent assessment period spanned 2011, 2012 and 2013—it is likely this drop in bay grass abundance influenced water quality results. But bay grasses have shown resilience: a dense bed on the Susquehanna Flats persisted through the storms of 2011, and showed how resilient such grass beds can be to disturbances in water quality. If bay grasses continue the recovery that took place in 2013, there could be positive effects across the wider Bay ecosystem.
Nine projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive $24.3 million in funding over the next two years as part of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Four of the nine projects were funded through the Bay watershed’s designation as a critical conservation area—a region with significant agricultural production that faces concerns of water quality and quantity. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is one of eight critical conservation areas located throughout the country. Totaling $19 million in funding, the four multi-state projects focus on watershed-wide restoration, ranging from restoring wetlands and forest buffers to rewarding dairy and livestock producers who implement practices that limit runoff from their farms.
The remaining five projects—localized state and county conservation initiatives in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia—will receive a total of $5.3 million in state-level RCPP funding.
The RCPP was established as part of the Agricultural Act of 2014—better known as the Farm Bill—and replaced regional conservation programs that were founded under previous Farm Bills, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI). Under this new program, qualified organizations, or “partners,” can propose projects that implement a variety of conservation practices on privately-owned farmland and forested areas.
Nationally, the 115 selected projects will receive an estimated total of $372.5 million in funding. A majority of available funds were allocated to state and national projects, while 35 percent went to projects in critical conservation areas. Nearly 70 percent of all funded projects address either water quality or availability, with the remaining projects addressing additional concerns such as wildlife protection, energy use and soil quality.
A complete list of funded projects is available on the NRCS website.