‘Bay Barometer’ Gives Mixed Results for Bay Protection and Restoration

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Fox Island as viewed from the air on Aug. 24, 2018. Fox Island has been home to a Chesapeake Bay Foundation education facility for over 40 years, but 2019 was the last season CBF operated on the island due to the loss of protective marshes caused by sea level rise and erosion. Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program with aerial support by Southwings.

By Carol Vaughn —

A report from the Chesapeake Bay Program shows mixed results on the Bay’s recovery.
The report, “Bay Barometer: Health and Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed 2019-2020,” gives information about progress on 10 goals and 31 outcomes designed to advance the Bay’s restoration and included in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
The 2014 agreement, amended in 2020, commits partners to protect and restore the Bay and its tributaries and sets a 2025 deadline for certain achievements.
“It seems pretty clear we are taking some steps forward when you look at water quality on a macro-scale…and that’s a really good thing. … I think’s it the product of our investments over the past several decades. We’re still a far way off from a fully restored Bay, of course,” said Joseph Woods, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The CBF is its State of the Bay report issued earlier this year put the Bay’s state at a D+, slightly down from last year. Still, the decline was mainly due to ineffective management of striped bass, rather than water quality concerns, according to a press release.
The Chesapeake Bay Program — a regional partnership of federal, state, and local governments; academic institutions; communities; businesses; individuals; and non-governmental organizations — is primarily funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The partnership includes 19 federal agencies; nearly 40 state agencies and programs; around 1,800 local governments; more than 20 academic institutions; and more than 60 non-governmental organizations.
The program leads and directs Bay restoration, guided by the goals and outcomes detailed in the watershed agreement.
The watershed, including more than 180,000 miles of tributaries, spans six states and the District of Columbia.
Gov. Ralph Northam chairs the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the six states’ governors, the Washington, D.C., mayor, the Chesapeake Bay Commission chairman, and the EPA administrator.
The council establishes policy for the Bay restoration program.
“Gov. Northam has made restoring the Chesapeake Bay a cornerstone of his administration and his actions will bring continued improvements in water quality, fish and wildlife, and local communities. As chair of the Chesapeake Executive Council, the governor has prioritized advancing the partnership’s work on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice and the escalating threats to a healthy Bay from climate change. While the Bay Barometer demonstrates we are making progress, strong leadership will be key to achieving the region’s goals by 2025,” said Matthew Strickler, Secretary of the Virginia Department of Natural Resources and chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Program Principals’ Staff Committee, in a press release.
The report includes data from government agencies, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, and demographic and behavior surveys, according to the release.
The Positives
Areas showing improvement from the previous report include:
Blue Crab management — around 17% of female crabs were harvested in 2019, marking 12 consecutive years in which the percent is below the 25.5% target and meaning the Bay’s crab stock is not being overfished.
Diversity — the most recent survey showed a slight increase, from 13.7% to 14.6%, in Chesapeake Bay Program partners who identified as people of color and an increase in leadership positions held by people of color, from 9.1% to 10.3%. In summer 2020, the Chesapeake Executive Council and the Principals’ Staff Committee adopted statements committing the program to embracing diversity and equity.
Environmental literacy — In 2019, 27% of local education agencies responding to a survey said they were well prepared to deliver high-quality environmental literacy programming to students; 52% said they were somewhat prepared, representing an increase since the initial survey in 2015.
Oysters — On 10 tributaries, large-scale oyster restoration is in progress. As of 2019, Maryland had completed 788 acres of oyster reefs and Virginia had completed 539 acres.
Protected lands — Nearly 1.36 million acres in the watershed have been permanently protected since 2010, marking 68% of the goal and bringing the total to 9.16 million acres.
Public access —194 public access sites were opened around the Bay in the past decade, marking a 65% achievement towards the goal to add 300 by 2025.
Students — In 2019, 32% of 132 local education agencies surveyed reported providing Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences (MWEEs) to at least some elementary school students. In middle school, the number rose to 38%, and at the high school level, to 43%.
The Negatives
Areas showing decline from the last report include:
2025 Watershed Implementation Plans — as of 2019, conservation practices to reduce pollution are in place to achieve 39% of nitrogen reductions, 49% of phosphorus reductions and 100% of sediment reductions needed to attain water quality standards when compared to the 2009 baseline established in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load.
Blue Crab numbers— Between 2019 and 2020, the number of adult female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay decreased 26%, from 191 million to 141 million. The number is above the 70 million threshold considered the minimum sustainable level, but lower than the 215 million target.
Forest buffers — 83 miles of buffers were planted in 2018 and 2019, falling short of the annual target by 817 miles; 9,190 miles of buffers have been planted since 2010.
Underwater grasses — In 2019, 66,684 acres of underwater grasses were mapped in the Bay, a 38% decrease from 2018, when it was estimated the Bay may have had up to 108,078 acres of underwater grasses. The 2025 target is 130,000 acres.
Water quality standards monitoring and attainment — 38% percent of the Bay and its tidal tributaries met water quality standards during 2016-2018 — a 4% decrease from the previous assessment period of 2015-2017.
What It Means
Woods said one statistic that stands out to him is the percentage of water quality standards achieved towards the goal.
“It’s on the order of 35%, which strikes me just a really low number. Something that stands out to me always is how much more improvement there could be,” he said.
Past investments in improving the Bay “seem commonsense now. … We are really reaping the benefits from those,” Woods said, adding, “I think that will be true in the future as well.”
The Virginia General Assembly this year made substantial appropriations for clean water initiatives, he noted, saying that kind of funding needs to continue for progress to be made, particularly in the area of agriculture and stormwater improvements.
Woods said planting riparian buffers is one action people can take to help improve the Bay’s health.
“Those really are so critical,” he said, adding, “…The funding is always going to be limited, but the money that we do have, getting that money into forested buffers and getting those implemented is one of the best things we can do from a water quality perspective for the Bay. It’s also one of the best things you can do from a carbon perspective; it’s one of the best things you can do from a wildlife perspective.”
“The challenges ahead are substantial,” Woods said, noting climate change, including increasing precipitation among other changes, “is really going to make things very difficult” when it comes to improving the Bay’s water quality.
The main takeaway from the report is “we’re inching along, but our progress is really dependent upon our commitment, both financially and on a policy basis,” Woods said, adding, “It’s no short feat that we are making progress.There are places around the world where estuaries are going backwards, things are getting worse…and here, we’re not necessarily in that situation, so I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about in the lens of Bay restoration. I really do think its a model for solving big, complicated problems with lots of stakeholders.”
The 44-page Bay Barometer report may be viewed at https://www.chesapeakebay.net/documents/Bay_Barometer_2019-2020_Web.pdf
Additionally, information about Bay restoration and protection indicators is updated throughout the year at www.chesapeakeprogress.com