The headwaters of Mattawoman Creek flow through Mattawoman Natural Environmental Area in Charles County, Md. The estuarine parts of the creek are considered a model for a fully restored Chesapeake Bay. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Every year, the Chesapeake Bay Program rounds up the latest environmental health and restoration data and information available and releases the Bay Barometer: Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. This year we are excited to report that the majority of our indicators are showing positive trends – an encouraging sign that our restoration efforts are working.

Guided by the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Chesapeake Bay Program partners use ten interrelated goals and 31 outcomes to collectively advance the protection and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and its watershed. Data and information used to track progress toward these outcomes come from a range of trusted sources, including government agencies, academic institutions, nongovernmental organizations and direct demographic and behavior surveys.

Thanks to the efforts of local governments, private landowners and watershed residents, nutrient and sediment pollution entering local waterways and the Bay have declined, but agricultural and urban and suburban runoff continue to be a challenge. We also observed these encouraging signs:

  • In 2016, 97,668 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) or underwater grasses were mapped in the Chesapeake Bay. This accounts for 53 percent of the outcome to achieve and sustain 185,000 acres of underwater grasses in the Bay, including 130,000 acres by 2025. ·
  • Dredge surveys estimate that there are 254 million adult female blue crabs in the Bay, exceeding the target of 215 million.
  • Between 2012 and 2016, Bay Program partners opened 1,126 historical fish migration routes for fish passage, exceeding the outcome to restore 1,000 additional stream miles.
  • Computer simulations show that pollution controls put into place in the Chesapeake Bay watershed between 2009 and 2016 lowered nitrogen loads by nine percent, phosphorus loads by 20 percent and sediment loads by nine percent. Pollution-reducing practices are in place to achieve 33 percent of the nitrogen reductions, 81 percent of the phosphorus reductions and 57 percent of the sediment reductions necessary to attain clean water standards
  • Forty percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries met water quality standards between 2014 and 2016. This is the highest amount ever recorded since we began collecting data in 1985.

This year, our experts assessed data for the first time for three new indicators: Environmental Literacy and Planning, Student Meaningful Watershed Experiences and Citizen Stewardship. Our first-ever Citizen Stewardship Index shows what actions residents are taking to protect clean water and restore environmental health as well as how much of the region has volunteered or spoken out on behalf of the environment.

“The Chesapeake Bay is our greatest natural asset, and our administration has been working tirelessly for three years to restore the Bay and protect our environment," said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. "Together with our partners on the Chesapeake Executive Council, we have made great strides, and we are committed to continuing to make historic investments and fight for the Bay. It will take all of the Bay jurisdictions and our federal partners working together to build on this incredible progress and secure the Chesapeake for future generations.”

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Chesapeake Program

Hello Mark,


When we talk about high phosphorus levels, we are talking in terms of soil phosphorus. High soil phosphorus has two main contributors:

1. Cumulative years of high phosphorus fertilization. For example, tobacco -- which has a long history of cultivation in areas of the watershed -- needs a lot of phosphorus to thrive. Farmers may have over-fertilized to ensure a vigorous crop.
2. Manure acts as a multivitamin for the land. It is a terrific source of nutrients and of great importance to the health and development of fields. Manure has long been known to help crops thrive, but there is a lack of understanding of the nutrient content of that manure and the eventual fate of those nutrients.

When the scientific community first began to look at the decline in water quality, it took a bit longer to recognize the implications of phosphorus on Bay and stream health because phosphorus behaves differently than nitrogen. Nitrogen is loosely held in soil, traveling either through soil or along with surface runoff after a big storm. Phosphorus molecules, in contrast, adhere tightly to particles of soil and organic matter. It was thought that phosphorus would not have as much of an impact because it was not leaving the field.

Fast forward, and the scientific community began to realize that soil has a capacity limit for holding phosphorus. This capacity limit changes based on the soil type. Over decades, many areas have reached their phosphorus capacity. Phosphorus that is not taken up by vegetation has nowhere to go but to leave the field. Phosphorus that cannot soak in is also leaving the field along with -- and inside of -- the sediment pollution. Hence, the phosphorus gap.

Many best management practices (BMPs) have been identified to help reduce the loss of phosphorus from fields. Nutrient management is a major one. Each state in the watershed takes a different approach regarding planning and requirements, but some sort of Nutrient Management Plan is critical. The popular shorthand for nutrient management is the 4 Rs: right source, right rate, right time, right place. This helps the farmer to save funds and supplies by using nutrients in an intentional way to have a robust crop, and at the same time helps reduce the impact to water quality and ecosystem health. The second crucial piece is to work towards curtailing erosion - here too farmers and environmental concerns are on the same page, as farmers do not want to see their topsoil washing away with the storms. Erosion can be managed with practices like riparian buffers, no till practices and contour farming. Cover crops span the situation and help with both issues.

For more information, look into the suite of BMPs and the efforts to assist farmers in switching to these practices:
http://www.nutrientstewardship.com/4rs
https://www.chesapeakebay.net/who/group/bmp_expert_panels
http://www.chesbay.us/Publications/CBC TA Report Boots on the Ground.pdf

The focus for the Bay Program's Agricultural Workgroup over the next two years is BMP implementation and verification.

Ben Hoskins

Please send the latest updates on the FERC approval of the agreement between the 6 states (and DC) and Excelon. And if FERC hasn't yet approved the agreement put maximum pressure on them. Thanks.

Mark Kessel

It seems like many of the Chesapeake’s targets are being met or approached, but it is evident that phosphorous loading has one of the widest gaps in attaining the watershed’s goals. Do you believe the collaborative efforts across the watershed have been effective in reducing crop farmers’ phosphorous practices, as well as other nonpoint sources?

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