Chesapeake Remains Ill, Bay Group Report Says

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2005

The Chesapeake Bay's health remains dangerously out of balance despite 30 years spent trying to clean it up, according to a report to be released today.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual State of the Bay report ranks the quality of the bay's waters, habitat and fish at 27 on a scale of 100, or a letter grade of D. Particularly troubling, the report's authors say, are oxygen levels in more than 40 percent of the bay's main stem too low to support healthy aquatic life, and in some sections too poor to maintain any life at all.

"Every American ought to be ashamed that 'America's bay' has been degraded to the extent that it has," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker.

"The Chesapeake Bay enjoys the very best science in the world. It enjoys enormous public support, but what's lacking is the political will to implement existing plans that have been proven to reduce pollution."

The report, released annually since 1998, assesses the bay's pollution levels, habitat and fisheries quality in a dozen categories. This year, measures of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, as well as underwater grass, shad and oyster populations, improved slightly over last year's measures. But the overall ranking remains stuck at the bottom of the scale for the third year running, which could complicate efforts to accomplish a 2000 agreement to cut pollution, particularly nitrogen, by 2010.

More than 16 million people live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and about 100,000 more move in every year. That brings more pollution, along with more pressure to clean it up: "It's like you're on a treadmill and it's speeding up," Baker said.

In 2000, the region's political and environmental leaders signed the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, a detailed plan to significantly reduce pollution in the bay and its tributaries over the next decade. Key to its potential success is a plan to cut the amount of nitrogen dumped into the bay -- chiefly through runoff containing fertilizers from cropland and suburban back yards and emissions from sewage treatment plants -- nearly in half by 2010. Nitrogen and phosphorus feed large algae "blooms," whose growth starves the water of oxygen.

The bay's nitrogen and phosphorus scores improved by one and four points, respectively, partly because of low rainfall, but they remain among the lowest-scoring categories in the report. Levels of dissolved oxygen, vital for supporting the bay's fish and plants, remain dismal, earning a ranking one point lower than last year.

This summer, data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that 41 percent of the bay's main stem held too little oxygen to support a healthy ecosystem and that a portion of that held too little to support any life.

Baker praised the plan of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) to upgrade the state's sewage treatment plants to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus emissions. "We could get 80 percent of the way" toward the 2010 goals, Baker said, by improving sewage treatment plants and reducing agricultural runoff throughout the watershed, an effort he estimated would cost $6 billion over the next six years. Reducing nitrogen, he added, would improve the bay's health in at least half the categories measured.

"They're proven strategies that can work, and farmers have shown willingness. . . . What they need is the funding assistance," Baker said.

This year, the quality of the bay's underwater grasses improved enough to move its ranking from 18 to 20, although that is still a D-minus rating. The shad population increased slightly, boosting its ranking from 10 to 12. The health of the bay's blue crab population remains at 38, a C. The oyster population, devastated over the past several decades by overfishing and disease, received the report's lowest ranking: a failing grade of 3, although that was up from 2 last year.

"We're seeing across the watershed [efforts at] restoration of the native oyster that are successful," Baker said. "We still believe that the native oyster has a chance to come back."

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