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State of the Bay Report:
Chesapeake Faced Massive Assault in 2018
Submitted by Will Baker

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Experts agree that the science-based Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is our last chance to Save the Bay. Since the Blueprint's beginning in 2010, the Bay has been improving. But as this year's State of the Bay shows, progress is never a straight line.

Simply put, the Bay suffered a massive assault in 2018. Extraordinary weather flushed enormous amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and debris—mostly from Pennsylvania, but also from other regions—off our lands and into the Bay. As a result, the State of the Bay score fell one point to a 33.

Still, there are heartening signs that the Bay is building resiliency. Bay grasses remain intact and recent studies indicate an improving trend in underwater dead zones over the long term. But the system remains dangerously out of balance. And new challenges like climate change and a federal administration attempting to rollback fundamental environmental protections are threatening success.

More significant rain storms could be the new normal. That means more pollution running off farm fields and city streets into the Bay and its rivers and streams. That's what happened in the summer of 2018, with record rainfall levels resulting in the phosphorus, nitrogen, and water clarity scores dropping. It's a lesson for the future.

Despite these additional pollution loads, there are signs that the Bay is better able to cope with extreme weather. For instance, a recent study suggests that the Bay is starting to help itself by short-circuiting the process that exacerbates the summer dead zone, leading to more oxygen in bottom waters.

Storms and algal blooms spurred by these additional nutrients disrupted water clarity. That was a set-back.

The federal government could undermine progress. The Trump administration plans to roll back Clean Air Act regulations that would have reduced nitrogen loads to the Chesapeake Bay.

Forests, wetlands, and underwater grasses offer food, protection, and a home for the wildlife and aquatic life of the Bay. These habitats also help us—cleaning our air and water, slowing flood waters, providing oxygen, along with numerous other health and environmental benefits. We are seeing small gains, but also troubling set-backs in this important area.

Underwater grasses increased slightly since 2016. While we are still far short of our restoration goal, 2017 marked the highest acreage of underwater grasses ever recorded. Many grass beds appeared to survive the record-breaking 2018 summer storms, a sign of the Bay's resiliency.

Forests and farmland continue to disappear, victims of ongoing development. Fortunately, those losses have been somewhat offset by preservation efforts, but more needs to be done.

There was no change in our indicator score from 2016 for forest buffers or wetlands, reflecting limited progress. However, in April 2018, CBF launched the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership, a major effort to increase forests along streams and streets.

Healthy fish, crab, and oyster populations are reliant upon a healthy Bay. Rockfish and crab populations remained stable over the past two years, and the State of the Bay scores for both remained unchanged. Oysters remained at low levels.

Overall, crab populations dropped modestly from 2017 to 2018 but survived cold water temperatures this past winter better than expected. Fortunately, juvenile numbers increased slightly in 2018. The steady growth of underwater grasses and the shrinking of low-oxygen dead zones should help the crab population in coming years.

Rockfish remained steady, thanks to good management and reproductive success. Fortunately, juvenile numbers have been strong in the Chesapeake Bay region. Adults who migrate into the Bay each spring have declined recently causing concern, but overall reproduction has been consistent.

Once abundant, American shad remained at all-time lows.

The oyster population remained at low levels, and wild fishery harvests were down dramatically, especially in Maryland. But some individual oyster restoration projects reached important milestones, including the restoration of the Lafayette River oyster population. In addition, oyster aquaculture continues to thrive, providing both ecological and economic benefits to the region.

The Chesapeake Oyster Alliance has a goal of adding at least 10 billion new oysters to the Bay by 2025, but unprecedented rainfall in 2018 and the resulting inundation of fresh water could impair oyster reproduction.

The Chesapeake Bay's restoration has the potential to be the most dramatic example of environmental recovery ever seen. The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working. Underwater grasses continue to thrive. And dead zones are shrinking. The Bay is improving and becoming more resilient, but the recovery is fragile. Climate change and the current federal administration both present new and significant challenges.

The Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams can become the model of environmental improvement—collaborative restoration based on science that can restore watersheds and clean water across the globe— all while enriching the lives of the watershed's 18 million residents.

That's why we have launched the Making History campaign. Focused on restoring two of the Bay's most effective natural filters— trees and oysters—the campaign will improve water quality, engage new advocates, and drive economic benefits across the region. Together with our partners, members, and other supporters, we can ensure a healthy Bay for us, our children, and grandchildren. Our efforts today will create a cleaner environment tomorrow.

This is history in the making. Now it is time to take action and finish the job.

Learn more about the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance and the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership. Then contact your local, state, and federal officials and urge them to support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. There is no more important time than now.

 





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