Our latest look at Chesapeake Bay health reveals early evidence of our progress toward the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. While the restoration of some habitats remains slow, experts report positive observations of pollution loads, underwater grass abundance and some fish and shellfish populations.
Released today, Bay Barometer: Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (2014-2015) offers a science-based snapshot of the nation’s largest estuary. The data and information it contains help us gauge the success of our work and provide the basis for our path forward in protecting the Bay.
Our most recent assessments of water quality show encouraging nutrient and sediment loads that are below the long-term average and a welcome increase in the attainment of clean water standards. Data related to living resources show an increase in the acres of underwater grasses available to fish and shellfish and in the stream miles open to the movements of migratory fish. Data also show an increase in populations of young striped bass, adult female blue crabs and migrating American shad.
“This year’s Bay Barometer shows many of our indicators are moving in the right direction,” said Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “We are seeing positive results from our efforts to restore balance to an important ecosystem that has suffered decades of damage. We must sustain and step up our efforts if we are going to succeed in the long run in dealing with climate change and other challenges.”
Because of the connections between pollution, water quality, living resources and wildlife habitat, it will take a steady effort from the entire Chesapeake Bay Program partnership to restore watershed health. Changes in one part of the Bay ecosystem can impact countless others. The restoration of coastal wetlands can mean resilience against some impacts of climate change; improvements in water quality can mean healthier fish and shellfish; and engaging the community in environmental protection can mean a rise in the local stewardship of land, rivers and streams.
The James River Association has measured an improvement in the overall health of the James River, giving the waterway a “B-” in its latest State of the James report.
Grades are based on four indicators of river health: fish and wildlife populations, habitat, pollution reduction and restoration and protection actions. The river’s score of 61 percent is a four percent increase since the report was last issued in 2013, and it marks the first time the historically-polluted waterway has scored in the “B” range. But according to the report, much work remains to be done, particularly related to sediment pollution in the waterway.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the James River Association, sediment pollution in the James has shown little improvement over the past several years, and it continues to pose a significant threat to the long-term health of the river.
According to the report, however, Virginia has made significant strides in reducing nutrient pollution—in particular, pollution from wastewater—as the state works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Several waterways on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore saw improvements in water clarity over the past year, helping them earn higher grades in the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy’s fifth annual report card.
Of the sixteen rivers and streams tracked by the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, grades for ten of the waterways improved from the previous year. This includes Tuckahoe Creek, a tributary of the Choptank and historically one of the area’s most polluted rivers, which was upgraded from a “D+” to a “C.” Increased water clarity and a rebound in underwater grass abundance helped the Choptank overall earn a “B-,” up from a “C” last year. Eastern Bay and the surrounding creeks showed modest improvement, all scoring “B” grades or higher.
Runoff from agriculture is the primary factor slowing the recovery of water quality in the area, according to the report. The Miles and Wye Rivers continue to struggle—earning “C” grades overall—due in part to increases in nitrogen pollution and low dissolved oxygen levels. Excess nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, blocking sunlight and creating low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic life.
Grades are based on data from more than 100 sampling sites, where volunteers test for water clarity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients and chloropyll a. The Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy also tracks water temperature, pH, salinity and bacteria levels.
For more information on nutrient and sediment loads in the Bay’s major rivers— including the Choptank—see the Bay Program's latest pollution load indicators.
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 monitoring 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 numbers seen in 2012.
“The Chesapeake Bay watershed is a vast and complex ecosystem that faces continued challenges,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “Yet in the face of these… challenges, we are witnessing signs of a system in recovery. And people have the ability to positively affect and help in the recovery process. In fact, we must do so.”
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.
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.
Researchers have measured marked improvements in the health of the Elizabeth River – most notably in the “notoriously polluted” Southern Branch – earning the waterway an overall “C” in the latest State of the Elizabeth River report.
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
The report, compiled by a team of scientists convened by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Elizabeth River Project, evaluates river health by using bacteria levels, algae, dissolved oxygen, diversity of bottom-dwelling species, nutrient concentrations and the presence of chemical contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr
Improvements in river health are due in part to local restoration efforts, including establishing wetlands, building oyster reefs, and dredging contaminated sediment. Between 2009 and 2013, the Elizabeth River Project helped to remove more than 36 million pounds of sediment contaminated with PAHs – a legacy of four wood treatment facilities once situated on the shore – from the river bottom near Money Point, a peninsula on the Southern Branch of the waterway. Since then, the report states, cancer rates in mummichog fish have declined six-fold, and the number of fish species observed in the area has risen from four to twenty-six.
Despite significant progress in many regions of the waterway, much remains to be done. According to the report, upcoming river recovery projects will focus on the Eastern Branch, where the Broad Creek and Indian River tributaries both received “F” grades, and on reducing the high levels of PCBs found in fish and shellfish throughout the river.
Rapid population growth and development remain the top threats to the health of the Potomac River Watershed, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s eighth annual State of the Nation’s River report. But the advocacy group hopes implementing smart growth strategies will help the waterway withstand pressure from a growing community.
Despite being listed as the nation’s most endangered river by American Rivers in 2012, the Potomac River’s overall health has improved in recent years. In 2013, the Potomac Conservancy raised the waterway’s grade to a “C” after giving it a “D” grade in 2011. Now, with an estimated 2.3 million new residents expected to move into the communities along its shores by 2040, the Conservancy fears a rapidly changing landscape could undo years of progress toward restoring the Potomac.
“Population growth is likely to bring positive changes to our region including more jobs, higher home values, and a more robust local tax base,” the report states. “But, left unplanned, that growth could also spell disaster for the health of our lands, waterways, and drinking water sources.”
With the region facing forest loss, polluted rivers and streams and an aging water infrastructure, the report offers a range of “smart planning opportunities” as strategies to meet the needs of a growing population without further harming local waters. The Conservancy hopes approaches including forest buffers, mixed-use communities and rain gardens, along with a focus on redevelopment in existing areas rather than new development on untouched lands, will allow for the continued improvement of the Potomac River’s health.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) measured minimal changes in Chesapeake Bay health in 2013, once again giving the estuary a “C” in their annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
This grade was the same in 2012, up from a “D+” in 2011. The Bay Health Index was reached using 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. Introduced in this year’s report card, the Climate Change Resilience Index will measure the Bay’s ability to withstand rising sea levels, rising water temperatures and other impacts of climate change.
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison attributed the Bay’s steady course to local management actions. While pollution-reducing technologies installed at wastewater treatment plants have improved the health of some rivers along the Bay’s Western Shore, continued fertilizer applications and agricultural runoff have stalled improvements along the Eastern Shore, Dennison said in a media release.
The Chesapeake Bay Program’s latest look at watershed health reflects the reality of an impaired Bay, where population growth and pollution could threaten stable blue crab, striped bass and shad populations.
Released today, Bay Barometer: Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed collects and summarizes the Bay Program’s most recent data on water quality, pollution loads and other “indicators” of Bay health, from ecological markers like underwater grass abundance to measures of progress toward restoration goals.
According to the report, more than half of the watershed’s freshwater streams are in poor condition, almost three-quarters of the Bay’s tidal waters are impaired by chemical contaminants and just 29 percent of the Bay has attained water-quality standards.
But an absence of rapid improvement in Bay health is not an indication that our restoration efforts are ineffective. Instead, it is an indication that lag-times are at play. Knowing that we will have to wait before we see visible improvements in water quality gives officials hope that the work done in 2012—like the 285 miles of forest buffers planted along waterways, the 2,231 acres of wetlands established on agricultural lands or the 34 miles of streams reopened to fish passage—will lead to results in the watershed. In fact, long-term trends indicate nutrient levels in Bay tributaries are improving, with most showing lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.
“Bay Program partners have made significant strides in moving us ever closer to a healthy, restored Bay watershed,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release. “We will have to exercise persistence and patience as the actions we take to rebuild balance and resilience… into this complex ecosystem… show up in the data from our monitoring networks.”
The Potomac Conservancy has reported an improvement in the Potomac River’s health for the third year in a row, giving the waterway a “C” in its seventh annual State of the Nation’s River report.
The Potomac Conservancy, an advocacy group that fights for the health of the waterway, has an optimistic outlook for the river’s future. “After suffering the effects of historical overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction, it is no wonder that the Potomac River’s recovery is a slow one,” the report states. “We believe the river is on its way back to full health.”
In 2012, the Potomac topped American Rivers’ list of the nation’s most endangered waterways, the biggest threat a combination of agricultural and stormwater runoff. With continued population growth in the Washington, D.C., area, human development has increased the amount of impervious surfaces that cannot absorb polluted rainfall traveling across the land and into storm drains, rivers and streams.
“Going forward, when it comes to cleaning up the Potomac, public enemy number one is polluted runoff,” said Hedrick Belin, Potomac Conservancy president. “That is the single largest threat to the full recovery of the Potomac, in that it is the only source of pollution that we see growing.”
The Conservancy plans to take a “three-pronged” approach to reducing polluted runoff, strengthening regulatory frames at a local level, increasing funding for clean water programs and creating incentives and assistance programs for property owners to make it easier for them to contribute to a healthy waterway.
Belin stresses the importance of protecting both the river and the land that surrounds it. ”As we peek around the corner or over the horizon, we see some troubling trends if we don’t change how we treat the land that surrounds the Potomac,” he explained.
The James River Association has measured a slight improvement in James River health, giving the waterway a “C” in its latest State of the James report.
Image courtesy tvnewsbadge/Flickr
The river’s score of 53 on a one-to-100 scale marks a two percent increase since the report was last issued in 2011, but continued problems with sediment pollution overshadow progress made elsewhere.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the State of the James report, sediment pollution in the James has shown no improvement over the past two decades, indicating that stronger measures should be taken to restore streamside forests and other buffers that can filter runoff before it enters rivers and streams.
Virginia has made strides, however, in reducing nutrient pollution, as it works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or “pollution diet.” The Commonwealth has invested in wastewater treatment, increased funding toward agricultural conservation and focused attention on controlling stormwater runoff.
Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) have measured an improvement in Chesapeake Bay health, giving the estuary a “C” in its latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Up from a “D+” in 2011, the Bay Health Index of 47 percent takes into account seven indicators of Bay health, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen; the amount of algae, nitrogen and phosphorous in the water; the abundance of underwater grasses; and the health of the benthic or bottom-dwelling community. While underwater grasses continued to decline, the rest of the indicators improved in 2012.
Image courtesy EcoCheck/Integration and Application Network
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” said UMCES Vice President for Science Applications and Professor Bill Dennison in a media release. “We are seeing progress in our efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels. In addition, water clarity, which had been declining, has leveled out—and may even be reversing course.”
According to the report card, these improvements are due to a number of weather events. While excess rainfall can push nutrient and sediment pollution into rivers and streams, a dry summer in 2011 led to improvements in water clarity and dissolved oxygen and the favorable timing and track of Superstorm Sandy meant the storm did less damage to the Bay than some feared.
Learn more about the 2012 Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Baltimore Harbor scored a C- on its latest water quality report card, marking a modest improvement from the previous year’s failing grade. According to the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore and Blue Water Baltimore, who released the Healthy Harbor Report Card earlier this month, the Harbor met water quality standards 40 percent of the time in 2012.
Image courtesy Affordable Memories Photography of Fredericksburg/Flickr
While the spring of 2012 brought an algae bloom, a fish kill and a sewage spill to the Harbor, the summer saw little rainfall and a drop in the amount of polluted runoff being pushed off of streets and into the urban waterway.
The nonprofits behind the release of the report card hope to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, and have embarked on a number of environmental initiatives to achieve this goal. More than 50 floating wetlands continue to capture stormwater runoff, absorb excess nutrients and provide habitat to water-filtering invertebrates after being installed along the Harbor’s shoreline. And students from five Baltimore City public schools have formed Green Teams to boost local awareness about the region’s persistent trash problem.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
As we know from our years at school, it is important to measure our progress, whether it pertains to our ability to learn and use information or to our work restoring water quality. Over the past 30 years, many non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and even individuals have used grades to measure how well we are doing in correcting environmental problems. In Maryland, former state Sen. Bernie Fowler uses his annual Paxtuent River Wade-In to bring attention to the need for continued vigilance on cleaning up our waterways. As a youth, Sen. Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see his sneakers; this is now his modern-day yardstick, known as the “Sneaker Index.”
Each year, Sen. Fowler wades into the Patuxent until he can no longer see his shoes. He comes out of the river and measures the water line on his denim overalls. Over the years, this number has become the “grade” for the river’s water quality. A number of other organizations publish similar report cards for different water bodies. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Blue Water Baltimore and others have developed sophisticated methods of measuring the health of our waterways, issuing letter grades to show how well or how poorly our efforts are working to improve the environment.
But, just like our report cards from school, water quality report cards don’t tell the whole story. While they can tell us what conditions are right now—whether we did well or poorly in a particular course or over the school year—there are a lot of factors that can influence a waterway’s score from one year to the next. We are making progress, although at times we may see setbacks. And as Sen. Fowler reminds us each year, we must stick to it, redouble our efforts and work even harder if we want to get and keep a passing grade.
While the Chesapeake Bay Program’s latest look at watershed health reflects the reality of an impaired Bay, signs of the ecosystem’s resilience abound in the science-based snapshot the Program released today.
According to Bay Barometer: Spotlight on Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay and its Watershed, water clarity and dissolved oxygen levels are low, a number of freshwater streams continue to be in poor condition and oyster populations remain at less than one percent of historic levels.
But even as these and other indicators of watershed health point to a stressed ecosystem, early information on how the Bay fared in 2012—from a summertime dead zone estimated to be smaller than normal to the boost in juvenile crabs entering the fishery—gives officials cause for optimism.
Recent restoration work and pollution cuts also offer signs of hope, although it will take time for such efforts to show visible improvements in water quality. The 240 miles of forest buffers that were planted alongside local waterways will stabilize shorelines, remove pollutants from runoff and provide much-needed shade to underwater habitat. The 150 miles of streams that were opened up to increase fish passage will allow migratory fish to reach their once-blocked spawning grounds. And the 15 new public access sites that were added to a list that includes over one thousand more will give watershed residents and visitors new opportunities to boat, fish, observe wildlife and connect with the Bay.
Bay Program partners also estimate that significant steps have been taken toward meeting the Bay’s “pollution diet,” as partners move 20 percent closer to their goal for reducing nitrogen, 19 percent closer to their goal for reducing phosphorous and 30 percent closer to their goal for reducing sediment.
“While we clearly have a lot of work to do, the Bay is resilient and we have reason for hope,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “We know this complex ecosystem will respond to restoration efforts and we expect to see encouraging results in 2012 data as it comes in over the course of the year.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has measured a “modest” improvement in Chesapeake Bay health, giving the Bay a “D+” in its biannual State of the Bay report.
While the Bay’s score of 32 on a one-to-100 scale falls short of what the Foundation would like to see—70 points, or an “A+”—this does mark a progression of one point since the report was last issued in 2010, and of four points since 2008.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
The report marks improvements in five of 13 “indicators,” or gauges of Bay health, which Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker attributes to sound science, renewed restoration efforts and the “Clean Water Blueprint,” or Total Maximum Daily Load, that is “in place and beginning to work.”
“Putting science to work gets results—especially when cooperation trumps conflict,” Baker said.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
These results? According to the Foundation, the average size of the Bay’s annual dead zone is shrinking. Blue crabs are producing more juveniles and oyster spat are showing improved survival. And states like Virginia and Pennsylvania are planting trees and preserving land from development. Even as critical acres of underwater grass beds are lost—the one indicator to worsen over the past two years—the once-decimated grasses of the Susquehanna Flats offered good news, surviving Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
Even so, Baker advocated caution: “Our greatest worry is that there is potential for improvement to breed complacency.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program will publish Bay Barometer, its annual snapshot of Bay health and watershed-wide restoration, later this month.
Read the 2012 State of the Bay report.
Plumes of sediment, floating trash and pathogens that make once-swimmable water unsafe: pollution of all kinds continues to plague the Potomac River, as populations grow, pavement expands and stormwater runoff pushes various hazards into the 405-mile long waterway.
But for the Potomac Conservancy, a boost in incentives, assistance and enforcement just might save the nation’s river.
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
According to the advocacy group’s sixth annual State of the Nation’s River report, “too many stretches of the Potomac River are still too polluted to allow you to safely swim, boat or fish, or to support healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life.”
The cause? A “pending storm” of population pressure and development, said Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin.
For Belin, more people means more development. More development means more pavement. And more pavement means more stormwater runoff.
The fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, stormwater runoff is rainfall that picks up pollutants—in the Potomac River’s case, nutrients, sediment, pathogens and chemicals—as it flows across roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses. It carries these pollutants into storm drains and rivers and streams, posing a threat to marine life and human health.
But cities and towns throughout the Potomac River basin are curbing stormwater runoff by minimizing their disturbances to the land. And it is this local, land-based action—the installation of rain barrels and green roofs, the protection of forests and natural spaces, the passing of pollution permits in urban centers—that the Conservancy thinks will push the river in the right direction.
In the report, the Conservancy calls on state and local decision-makers to strengthen pollution regulations, increase clean water funding and improve pollution-reduction incentives and technical assistance.
“The Potomac Conservancy is advocating for river-friendly land-use policies and decisions, especially at the local level,” Belin said. “Because defending the river requires protecting the land that surrounds it.”
Learn more about Troubled Waters: State of the Nation’s River 2012.
Impaired by trash, rated poor for nutrient pollution and listed as unsafe for human contact much of the time, Baltimore Harbor scored a failing grade on its most recent Healthy Harbor Report Card.
Image courtesy Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore
While community engagement in conservation is on the rise—volunteers have planted trees, picked up trash and even painted murals around storm drains to make a connection between streets and streams—algae blooms, dead zones and fish kills remain a problem for the urban watershed.
According to the Healthy Harbor Report Card, water quality in Baltimore Harbor did not improve in 2011, when spring and fall rains pushed pollutants into the water.
From a spring shower to a fall hurricane, the flow of pollutants into Baltimore Harbor is closely tied to regional rainfall. The amount of litter collected in the Harbor in 2011, for instance, spiked when water flow was at its highest after Tropical Storm Lee. Sewage overflows, too, were linked to large storms, when rainwater seeped into sewer pipes and pushed harmful bacteria into the Harbor.
Image courtesy Blue Water Baltimore/Flickr
To combat these problems, the non-profits behind the Healthy Harbor Report Card have engaged students and citizens in a mission to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable within the next decade. Blue Water Baltimore, for instance, has curbed stormwater runoff on school grounds and helped Clean Water Communities develop plans for cleaning and greening their neighborhoods. And the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has published a Healthy Harbor Plan to provide Baltimoreans with a roadmap for Harbor clean-up.
Learn more about the Healthy Harbor Report Card.
An unusual sequence of weather events, including a wet spring, a hot, dry summer, and two tropical storms, caused the Chesapeake Bay’s health to decline in 2011, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
(Image courtesy Chesapeake EcoCheck)
Scientists gave the Bay a D+ on the latest Chesapeake Bay Report Card, an annual assessment of the health of the Bay and its tidal rivers. The score of 38 percent was the second lowest since assessments began in 1986 and down from a C- in 2010.
Only two areas – the lower western shore and the Patapsco and Back rivers – improved last year. The rest of the Bay’s segments remained the same or got worse. Scientists recorded lower scores in the Patuxent River, Rappahannock River, James River, Tangier Sound, and the upper and middle Bay.
"The spring rains and hot, dry summer followed by Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Lee led to poor health throughout Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries," said Dr. Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "While we have been making considerable progress in various restoration activities, these results indicate we still need to do much more to reduce the input of nutrients and sediments from stormwater runoff into the Bay."
The Bay’s health is largely affected by weather conditions. Rainfall carries pollution from farms, cities and suburbs to storm drains, streams and eventually the Bay. Even as the government, communities and citizens work to reduce pollution, an increase in stormwater runoff can mask the effects of these improvements.
Wet weather last spring washed more nutrient pollution into the water, fueling the growth of algae blooms that blocked sunlight from reaching bay grasses. Hot, dry weather allowed these algae blooms to persist through summer, leading to low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Bay’s bottom waters. In late summer, the Bay was slammed by the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, both of which worsened water clarity.
"The report card clearly indicates that the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a dynamic ecosystem subject to severe weather events," said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “The silver lining is that the Hopkins-UMCES study of 60 years of water quality data concluded that a decrease in the frequency and severity of dead zones in the Bay is the direct result of implementing measures to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. We know what works; we just need to do more of it."
The Chesapeake Bay Report Card, produced by the EcoCheck partnership, offers a timely and geographically detailed assessment of the health of the Bay’s water quality and aquatic life. Visit EcoCheck’s website for more information about the report card, including region-specific data and downloadable graphics.
Despite improvements in some key areas, the Anacostia River’s health is still in very poor condition, according to a new report card released by the Anacostia Watershed Society.
(Image courtesy Mr. T in DC/Flickr)
Stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution to the Anacostia River, which flows to the Potomac River, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributaries. Runoff carries dirt, oil, trash, fertilizer and other pollutants from the land into the Anacostia, where they smother underwater life and make the river unsafe for fishing and swimming.
The Anacostia River report card uses data on four water quality indicators – dissolved oxygen, water clarity, fecal bacteria and chlorophyll a (algae) – to determine the river’s health. Although this year’s report card showed improvements in fecal bacteria levels, the river’s water clarity is still extremely poor due to continued sediment runoff.
New legislation just passed in Maryland to enact a stormwater fee in the state’s largest counties, combined with funding from a similar District of Columbia fee, will help implement infrastructure repairs that reduce polluted runoff to the Anacostia and other waterways.
Visit the Anacostia Watershed Society’s website for more information about the river’s health and what you can do to help restore it.
The James River Association (JRA) has given Virginia’s James River a C in its latest State of the James report, down from a C+ in the last report two years ago, despite rebounding underwater bay grass beds and resurgent shad and eagle populations.
(Image courtesy Team Traveller/Flickr)
The State of the James measures four critical indicators of river health: key fish and wildlife species, habitat, pollution, and restoration and protection actions. The river received a 53 percent score, meaning it is just over the halfway point of being fully healthy. However, this score is down 4 percent from two years ago.
The largest score decline was observed in the pollution category, which fell 11 percent from the previous report’s score. According to the JRA, progress to reduce nutrient pollution has stalled, and sediment pollution actually increased due to large storms.
“The James River is healthier today than it has been in decades, but the kind of progress we have made toward improving the health of the river is waning,” said JRA Executive Director Bill Street. “Unfortunately, unless we redouble our commitment to controlling pollution flowing into the James, we run the real risk of erasing the progress we have worked so hard to achieve.”
Visit the JRA’s website to learn more about the James River and the State of the James report.
The Potomac Conservancy has awarded the Potomac River’s health a barely passing “D” grade in its fifth annual State of the Nation’s River report.
Population growth and poor land use practices are the primary causes for the river’s pollution, according to the report. The Potomac River’s “two worlds” – rural farms and mountains to the west and the urban landscape to the south – pose different challenges.
Throughout the report, the Potomac Conservancy provides a vision of greater accountability, efficiency and enforcement actions to improve land use practices and water quality. These include strong federal and state stormwater laws, and changing local codes to protect riparian forest buffers, promote well-managed farms, better regulate large farm operations and treat pollution before it enters local waterways.
“We know what needs to be done, but this region is going to have to find the political will to make the hard choices,” according to Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin. “Investing a dollar today to reduce pollution will return clean water dividends for years to come.”
For more information about the state of the Nation’s River report, visit the Potomac Conservancy’s website.
Image courtesy Michael Renner/Flickr
The Chesapeake Bay has received a C-minus on the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) 2010 Bay Health Report Card. The 2010 grade is a 4 percent decrease from 2009, when the Bay’s health received a C.
Higher rainfall – which led to increased stormwater runoff from the land – drove down scores for water quality and biological heath indicators. Researchers believe that two closely timed, large-scale weather events in winter 2010 played a role in the decrease.
The Bay’s health is affected by many factors, including human activities and natural variations in rainfall, which is the major driver of runoff from farms, cities and suburbs. Even as pollution is reduced, higher rainfall and associated runoff can mask the effects of these improvements.
“One of the main drivers of annual conditions in Chesapeake Bay is river flow related to weather patterns,” said UMCES-EcoCheck scientist Dr. Heath Kelsey. “While efforts to reduce pollution have been stepped up in recent years, nature overwhelmed those measures in 2010 and temporarily set the Bay back a bit.”
The declines are the first observed since 2003 and are on par with conditions observed in 2007. Annual weather-related variability in scores, even as more pollution-reduction measures are put into place, is to be expected in a highly complex ecosystem like the Bay, according to Dr. Kelsey.
Overall, the Lower Bay’s health score stayed relatively steady from 2009, while the Mid- and Upper Bay regions declined slightly. Results were fairly consistent in that declines were seen in most indicators.
The report card, based on data collected by state and federal agencies through the Chesapeake Bay Program, provides an independent analysis of Chesapeake Bay ecosystem health. It is expected that Bay Health Index scores will increase over time, as restoration and pollutant reduction activities are increased.
The report card analysis is conducted through the EcoCheck partnership between UMCES and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. In addition to the Bay-wide reportcard, UMCES works with local watershed organizations to develop river-specific report cards to give residents a creek-by-creek look at their local waters.
For more information about the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Health Report Card, including region-specific data, visit the Chesapeake EcoCheck website.
The Magothy River in Anne Arundel County, Md., received a D-minus on its latest health report card, the same grade as last year but a significant decline from several years ago, according to the Magothy River Association’s latest Magothy River Index.
The index assesses the river’s health according to three indicators: water clarity, dissolved oxygen and bay grasses. Bay grass acreage in the river decreased in 2007 and water clarity diminished in 2008. Scores for both have remained low ever since.
Low dissolved oxygen at the surface of several creeks is also a problem in the river. Upper Mill and Dividing creeks had the worst surface dissolved oxygen, suggesting that pollution problems that lead to low oxygen levels are worse in those areas.
Despite the low scores, the Magothy River Association is looking to the future to help restore the river. The group is working with scientists to explore if any native species of bivalves other than oysters could be used to help clean up the river. Bivalves can help filter algae out of the water as they feed, but oysters can’t live in many parts of the Magothy because the water is too fresh. One species that may help is dark false mussels, which helped improve water clarity and bay grass acreage in one Magothy River creek in 2005 when they were abundant.
The Magothy River Association also encourages its members and area residents to take small steps to help reduce pollution to the river. Planting more native trees and flowers, installing rain gardens, reducing use of lawn fertilizer and maintaining septic systems are a few of the tips the group suggests. These practices will help reduce pollution no matter where you live.
The Magothy River Index is an annual health report developed by Dr. Peter Bergstrom, a NOAA scientist and Magothy River Association member. The index uses scientific data from state agencies and volunteer water quality monitors. The Magothy River Association has released the index each year since 2003.
For more information, visit the Magothy River Association’s website.
The Chesapeake Bay’s health has improved slightly over the past two years, but the ecosystem remains out of balance, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2010 State of the Bay report.
The Bay’s overall health ranks 31 out of 100 on the Foundation’s numeric health index, a three point improvement from 2008. On the health index scale, 40 represents “improving,” 50 represents “stable,” and 70 represents a “saved” Chesapeake Bay. A score of 100 represents the pristine conditions of the 1600s when Captain John Smith explored the Bay.
“The Bay is a system that is starting to get better,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Although this is a “huge development,” according to Baker, “the gains that have been achieved are fragile.”
The overall score is derived from 13 individual scores for indicators on pollution, habitat and fisheries. Eight of the 13 indicators improved in 2010, while two scores decreased.
To help continue upward progress on restoring the Bay, the Foundation urges the government to enforce pollution laws and people to tell their elected officials that saving the Bay will help the region’s economy.
Visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website to read the entire 2010 State of the Bay report.
The Potomac Conservancy has released its fourth annual State of the Nation’s River report, naming development a primary source of stress on farms, forests and the health of the water in the Potomac River region.
The report highlights changes in the way land is being used in the Potomac River region. Forests and working farmland, both economically and ecologically valuable features, are being lost as the area continues to grow. This ultimately affects the health of the river, which is a source of drinking water for Washington, D.C., and other communities.
The report also explores the potential of “green infrastructure” as a way to accommodate growth while also supporting the health of the river and the environment.
“We invest so much in our man-made infrastructure, like roads … Our green infrastructure deserves the same investment,” said Aimee Weldon, Potomac Conservancy’s senior director of restoration and land, about the need for a new system of connected forests, farms and river. “That investment in natural networks of connected lands will strongly support wildlife and provide benefits to human populations.”
The report illustrates many examples of good and bad land use practices in the Potomac region. One recent example took place in Loudoun County, Virginia, where more than 450 trees along 1.5 miles of the river were cut down to clear a view. According to the Potomac Conservancy, this action was legal under county rules, showing that codes and ordinances need to be updated to reflect the current nature of development.
“Through sufficient funding and thoughtful codes and ordinances, county, state and federal agencies can work with local partners and communities to build a strong network of lands and streams, which will maximize and protect public and private investments in land conservation and restoration,” said Hedrick Belin, president of the Potomac Conservancy.
A companion document, called the 2010 Potomac Agenda, recommends several actions to preserve forests and better manage farmland:
For more information about the State of the Nation's River, visit the Potomac Conservancy's website.
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) has given the health of the Nanticoke River – considered to be one of the most pristine rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed – a B-minus in the first-ever Nanticoke River Report Card.
The report card, based on data collected by volunteers with the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, is designed to help local residents better understand the Nanticoke’s health. From April through November, more than 30 volunteers monitor water quality at 37 sites throughout the Nanticoke’s 725,000-acre watershed.
The Nanticoke River watershed covers approximately 725,000 square miles from its headwaters in Delaware to the river’s mouth at Tangier Sound on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Captain John Smith mapped the Nanticoke River during his 1607-1609 voyages of the Chesapeake, and the river still has many spots where viewers can enjoy a “John Smith view” unobstructed by modern development.
“The Nanticoke River report card shows that we must remain vigilant about managing the watershed to avoid degrading this magnificent river,” said UMCES Vice President for Science Application Dr. Bill Dennison.
The Nanticoke River Report Card is one of eight river report cards that UMCES produces along with its annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Delaware environmental officials, political leaders and environmental advocates celebrated the river’s health but also noted that the region must remain careful to protect it for future generations.
For more information about the Nanticoke River Report Card, visit UMCES’ website.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) has released the first-ever State of the Susquehanna report, which details successes, partnerships, threats and opportunities for seven key indicators influencing the Susquehanna River basin’s health.
The State of the Susquehanna includes data, maps, feature stories and other information that tells the story of the Susquehanna River basin. The report also highlights how the seven indicators relate to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
The seven indicators in the State of the Susquehanna are:
“Despite gradual improvements, the Susquehanna will continue to experience enormous pressure, calling for additional research, including on potential impacts from the development of natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale on the watershed, especially in its headwaters areas,” said Dr. Benjamin Hayes, director of the Susquehanna River Initiative, Bucknell Environmental Center.
Along with Bucknell University, other partners in the State of the Susquehanna include the U.S. EPA Region 3 and the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies.
A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) suggests that underwater bay grasses in the Potomac River are increasing due to efforts to reduce nutrient pollution.
The study, which used data from 18 years of river monitoring, shows that fewer nutrients and clearer waters in the Potomac have increased the amount and different types of bay grasses growing in the river.
Bay grasses – also known as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV – are critical to the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Bay grasses provide oxygen to the water and food and shelter for fish, crabs, waterfowl and other species.
Excess nutrient pollution in the water fuels the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight that bay grasses need to grow and survive.
Between 1990 and 2007, the area covered by bay grasses in the lower Potomac River doubled, from 4,207 acres to 8,441 acres.
In addition, the area covered by native grasses has increased tenfold, from 288 acres in 1990 to 3,081 acres in 2007. Meanwhile, the proportion of non-native species to native species has declined. In 1990, more than 80 percent of the total amount of bay grasses in the lower Potomac was the non-native hydrilla; in 2007, hydrilla declined to 20 percent of all bay grasses.
The diversity of bay grass species in this reach of the Potomac has increased. More than a dozen species of bay grasses – including hydrilla – now co-exist in the lower Potomac.
These improvements have occurred “nearly in lock step with decreases in nutrients and sediment in the water” and reductions in nitrogen in treated wastewater from Washington, D.C., according to USGS scientist Dr. Nancy Rybicki.
“Upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant have benefited [bay grass] habitats 50 miles downstream. These findings underscore the benefits of nutrient reduction efforts on a major tributary to the Chesapeake Bay,” said Rybicki, who has been conducting research on the Potomac since 1979.
“People want to know that money spent on ecosystem restoration is having tangible results, but many feel that efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay have so far had limited success,” said researcher Dr. Henry Ruhl of the National Oceanography Centre, which also contributed to the study. “Our results suggest that widespread recovery of submerged vegetation abundance and diversity can be achievable if restoration efforts are enhanced across the Bay.”
A multi-agency study released in July found similar results to the USGS study, correlating nutrient reductions with gains in bay grass abundance in some Bay tributaries, while noting a negative correlation between bay grasses and nitrogen.
For more information about the USGS study, visit the project website and the USGS Chesapeake Bay Activities page.
The health of the Chesapeake Bay improved last year to its highest level since 2002, according to the latest annual report card released by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), which gave the Bay a health grade of C.
The 2009 report card notes improved conditions in eight regions of the Bay and continued degraded conditions in two regions. Grades for 14 individual regions were averaged together for an overall Bay health grade of C.
The highest-ranked region for the third year in a row was a B-minus on the upper western shore of Maryland, which includes the Bush and Gunpowder rivers. The lowest-ranked region was the Patapsco and Back rivers, which received an F.
Scientists attribute the health improvements to last year’s unique regional rainfall patterns, continued efforts to reduce nutrient pollution, and the gradual rebound in Bay health since historically poor conditions observed in 2003.
“Despite the record high rainfall in parts of Maryland and Virginia, the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay improved last year,” said UMCES researcher and project leader Dr. William Dennison. “Normally, more precipitation means poorer Bay health. But last year, the Bay benefited from below average rainfall throughout Pennsylvania which appears to have reduced the amount of pollutants reaching the open waters of the mainstem Bay.”
Over the report card's 24-year history, Bay health was rated at its highest in 1993 with a score of 57, and it lowest in 2003 with a score of 35. The 2009 rating of 46 falls in the top 25 percentile.
An encouraging sign in the Bay’s health has been an improvement in water clarity over the past two to three years. There was a 12 percent increase in water clarity in 2009. The most dramatic improvements were in the middle regions of the Bay, including the Bay’s mainstem and the Choptank, Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. However, the reporting regions with chronically poor water clarity – the Patapsco and Back rivers, Maryland’s lower western shore, and the York and Elizabeth rivers – still had muddy, turbid water.
The Chesapeake Bay Report Card is an annual analysis conducted through the EcoCheck partnership between UMCES and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office using data collected by Bay Program partners.
For more information about the 2009 Chesapeake Bay Report Card, including maps, charts and data, visit the Chesapeake Eco-Check website.
For the second year in a row, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) has given the Bay a C-minus on its annual Chesapeake Bay Health Report Card.
The UMCES report card is the second major assessment of the Chesapeake’s health this year, following the Bay Program’s Bay Barometer, which gave the Bay a score of 38 out of 100. Report cards have also been issued for individual Bay tributaries, including the Magothy, South, Severn and Patuxent rivers.
The C-minus grade for a second year in a row shows that the Bay’s poor conditions have not significantly changed from 2007. However, scientists are intrigued by new long-term trends showing that improving areas continue to get better while degrading areas continue to get worse.
“These diverging positive and negative trajectories in some of the Bay’s key areas show there are important ecological feedbacks that come into play once restoration efforts reach a certain level,” said UMCES Researcher and Project Leader Dr. Bill Dennison.
For example, restoration efforts on the James River in Virginia and the tributaries of Maryland’s upper western shore (including the Bush and Gunpowder rivers) appear to be having a positive influence, as water quality and the health of underwater life continue to improve. In other areas, such as Maryland’s lower western shore tributaries (including the Magothy, Severn and South rivers), nutrient and sediment pollution continue to hinder progress to improve local ecosystem health, according to Dennison.
While the Bay’s overall health earned a C-minus, the health of the 15 “reporting regions” -- individual sections of the Bay and its rivers -- assessed in the report card ranged from a B-minus for the tributaries of the upper western shore of Maryland to an F for the lower western shore tributaries.
The grades for the rest of the reporting regions are:
Visit the Chesapeake EcoCheck website for more information about the 2008 Chesapeake Bay Health Report Card.
The Bay Program has released its Chesapeake Bay 2007 Health and Restoration Assessment, a four-part snapshot of health conditions and restoration efforts in the Bay and its watershed. The assessment indicates that the overall health of the Bay remained degraded in 2007. Despite the extensive actions of Bay partners to combat factors slowing restoration progress, the Bay Program is still far short of most restoration goals.
Of the key indicators of Bay health, the assessment shows that:
The reasons for the continued poor health of the Bay are described in Chapter Two: Factors Impacting Bay and Watershed Health. The Chesapeake is affected by multiple factors -- ranging from population growth to agricultural runoff to climate variability -- that challenge the ecosystem's recovery.
If current development trends continue:
Chapter Three: Restoration Efforts highlights Bay Program partners' progress toward reducing pollution, restoring habitats, managing fisheries, protecting watersheds and fostering stewardship.
Bay Program partners continued to make progress toward goals to open fish passage, restore forest buffers and preserve land in 2007.
At the December 2007 Chesapeake Executive Council meeting, each Bay jurisdiction chose to “champion” issues vital to restore their streams, rivers and Bay waters. “Champion” issues include enhancing agricultural conservation practices, engaging local governments in upstream communities and “greening” urban areas through improved stormwater controls. The outcomes of these projects and programs are intended to be models for restoration that can be used in other areas of the watershed.
New to the assessment this year is a chapter on the health of the Bay watershed's extensive network of freshwater streams and rivers. The presence and diversity of snails, mussels, insects and other freshwater benthic macroinvertebrate communities are good indicators of stream health because of their limited mobility and known responses to environmental stressors. As a result, these communities are often used as indicators of the general health of freshwater streams and rivers.
Separately, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science(UMCES) has released its 2007 Chesapeake Bay Health Report Card, a geographically based assessment of the health of the Bay examining conditions in 2007. The UMCES Report Card shows that 2007 ecological conditions in the Bay were slightly better than the previous year, but far below what is needed for a healthy Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay 2006 Health and Restoration Assessment reports show that the Bay's overall health remains degraded, despite significant advances in restoration efforts by Bay Program partners through newly focused programs, legislation and/or funding.
“While much has been accomplished, there is still much work left to be done,” said Jeff Lape , director of the Bay Program Office. “Restoring the Chesapeake Bay cannot be done with government support alone. It is up to every citizen living in the Bay watershed to become a steward of our nation's largest and most cherished estuary.”
The annual Health and Restoration Assessment reports give watershed residents a clear and concise synopsis of Bay health and on-the-ground restoration efforts in key areas including:
Read or download the full report.