February 11, 2019

How Would Your Parents Like This Report Card: The 2018 Chesapeake Bay Health Score Drops to D+ as Massive Rains Increase Pollution

Posted on February 11, 2019 by Lee DeHihns

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released the 2018 State of the Bay Report on January 7, 2019 and the overall grade was not good.  The Bay scored 33 on a scale of 100. The 2018 score is down a point from the last report issued in 2016.  CBF President Bill Baker put as positive a spin as he could on the D+ score saying, “What does it all mean? The summer of 2018 is a stark reminder that the Bay’s recovery is fragile.  We have a long way to go, especially as climate change intensifies.  And, the federal government could significantly undermine our progress by rolling back regulations that would have resulted in nitrogen reductions to the Chesapeake Bay.”

The news is sad for the 18 million people who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which has been struggling to deal with the elusive lack of control over the major pollution source to the Bay: non-point pollution, which was increased by the massive rainfall in 2018.  The report says that such extraordinary weather conditions are consistent with the more frequent and severe storms that climate models predict for the region in the future, meaning that it may only become more challenging to put the Bay’s predominantly non-point sources of pollution in check. 

On a positive note, in June 2018, researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science measured continued improvements in the health of the Chesapeake Bay, according to their 2017 Chesapeake Bay Report Card, finding that, “[w]hile the overall grade of “C” has remained the same since 2012, this marks the first year that experts have seen what they call a ‘statistically significant’ positive trend. This suggests that the positive improvements in the grade of the Bay are the result of real progress rather than chance.”  The CBF report reaches a similar conclusion in stating, “[d]espite these effects, there are signs that the Bay is more resilient and better able to cope with extreme weather.  For instance, in August, scientists observed that the underwater grass beds on the Susquehanna flats remained robust and dense, despite the summer’s severe storms.”

The efforts to both protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay are almost as old as EPA, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership that includes EPA.  According to the Program’s website, the Chesapeake Bay was the first estuary in the nation targeted by Congress for restoration and protection: “In the late 1970s, U.S. Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias (R-Md.) sponsored a Congressionally funded $27 million, five-year study to analyze the Bay’s rapid loss of wildlife and aquatic life. The study, which was published in the early 1980s, identified excess nutrient pollution as the main source of the Bay’s degradation. These initial research findings led to the formation of the Chesapeake Bay Program as the means to restore the Bay.”

It is quite obvious that leadership for protecting the Bay must come from local resources and decisions.  The EPA FY 2019 Budget requested a 90% drop in funding from FY 2018 for its Chesapeake Bay Program.  The change cut more than $65 million [OK]  in funds and almost 40 FTE, leaving only about $7.3 million, with the following inadequate justification provided to Congress on the budget submission: “This program change reduces funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program. Remaining resources will support critical activities in water quality monitoring.” 

Just as parents who may wonder why their child got a low grade, at first blaming the school system or teacher, before looking at the child and/or their parental oversight, the solution to protecting the Chesapeake Bay demands action by many players.  Because of the interstate nature of the sources of pollution to the Bay, a greater role from EPA has always been necessary.  Moreover, because land use management is the primary way to address nonpoint source pollution, the primary responsibility rests on the States in the Bay’s watershed. 

We should be shocked that, in 2018, the Bay’s grade is a D+.  In passing the Clean Water Act in October 1972, Congress, in Section 101, 33 U.S.C. 1251, established the Declaration of Goals and Policy for our nation’s waters.  The Acts set two deadlines which have long since passed “(a) (1) it is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985; (2) it is the national goal that wherever attainable, an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983”.   If a child failed to advance beyond the first grade with a D+ in 1983, then that child would be 36 now and still living at home.

In a sense we are all parents when it comes to protecting the Bay.  The reduction in federal tax dollars will not yield a better system; nor can it be accepted as an excuse for not doing the right thing for the Bay.  States and other partners must fill the gap.

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