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.
Andy, my next-door neighbor, is a fisherman. We talk from time to time across our backyard decks. Andy has never asked me about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement signed in June 2014. But if he did, how would I explain it? Are the ten goals of the Agreement connected?
Of course they are. Think fish, think Chesapeake Bay, and the mind conjures rockfish, crabs and oysters - restored and protected. That’s Goal 1, Sustainable Fisheries. What do fish, wildlife and other living things need to survive? Vital Habitats made up of restored underwater grasses, streams, forest buffers and tree canopy (Goal 2). Habitats require good Water Quality, which means reducing pollutant loads flowing into the Bay (Goal 3). But is water quality alone enough? Nope: Toxic Contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs, harm both wildlife and human health and must be reduced (Goal 4).
Are we finished? Not yet. Our good waters must remain healthy (Healthy Watersheds, Goal 5). Without increasing our leadership – citizens and elected officials committed to restoration – our efforts are for naught (Stewardship, Goal 6). Our Chesapeake Bay region is blessed with ecologically valuable and treasured lands that protect our waters and enhance our lives (Land Conservation, Goal 7).
What brings the magic of the Bay home most of all? Experiencing it – swimming, boating and fishing – which means increased Public Access (Goal 8). Future leadership is essential; our children must graduate from school with the knowledge and skills to protect and restore our lands and waters (Environmental Literacy, Goal 9). And our restoration efforts must account for changing climactic conditions and sea level rise (Climate Resiliency, Goal 10).
So, that's it: ten steps to a restored Chesapeake Bay. Have a good day, Andy.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation once again gave the Chesapeake Bay a “D+” grade in its biennial State of the Bay report, with improvements in water quality offset by declines in fisheries.
This grade remains the same from the nonprofit’s 2012 report. The score of 32 on a one-to-100 scale marks an improvement of one point since 2010 and of four points since 2008 but remains well short of the Foundation’s goal of 70, representing an “A+” or a “saved Bay.”
According to the report, four of the 13 indicators of Bay health showed signs of recovery: dissolved oxygen, water clarity, oyster populations and underwater grass abundance. Of those, dissolved oxygen showed the greatest improvement, with this year’s “dead zone” - an area of little to no dissolved oxygen where aquatic life is unable to thrive - the smallest it has been in thirty years. But these advances were offset by declines blue crab and striped bass populations, as well as increases in phosphorous pollution.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker attributes improvements in water quality to the “Clean Water Blueprint,” or Total Maximum Daily Load - a comprehensive plan to reduce pollution going to the Bay and its rivers and streams.
“We have never before had this level of accountability and transparency in Bay restoration efforts,” said Baker in a release. “Our children and grandchildren can inherit a restored Chesapeake Bay, but only if we continue the hard work and investments that will lead to success.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program will publish Bay Barometer, its annual snapshot of watershed-wide health and restoration, later this month. The Bay Program is a voluntary partnership that includes the six watershed states of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representing the federal government.
Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.