by Stephen Wagner

In recent years, whenever the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) issued its annual report card, the grade has been on the cusp of failure. This year’s grade was a 33 (D+) grade. That grade is most often aimed at their favorite truant, Pennsylvania, presumably due to the close proximity of ag run-off. The main whipping boy is agriculture, though other factors share the blame – rain washing street effluent into drainage outlets, for example.

“The Chesapeake Bay system is still dangerously out of balance,” said Will Baker, president of CBF. “But there is hope for improvement as pollution levels decline and the Dead Zone retreats.”

A grade of “A” would require a score of 70, which means that everything would be close to perfect. It has never been “A” before, and there are serious impediments that will keep the grade in the “D” range for the foreseeable future. “The road ahead is steep,” Baker said, “and the clock is ticking. Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia have developed plans which, if fully implemented, will meet the 2025 goal. Pennsylvania and New York, however, are far off-track.”

Among the negative impedimenta are rollbacks of clean air and clean water regulations by the Trump Administration. These were regulations “that were working,” stressed Baker. However, in a bipartisan action by Congress, legislative support for restoring funding (and even increasing it) has been voiced. Added to CBF woes is the EPA’s failure to enforce the Clean Water Act, putting the entire restoration effort at risk. It’s this seesaw approach to the various problems that keep things off-kilter. But, said Baker, “we have the opportunity to make saving the bay the greatest environmental success story the world has ever seen.”

“Reducing pollution to improve water quality is the centerpiece of our bay restoration efforts,” said Beth McGee, director of science and agricultural policy at CBF. She said the good news is that “all pollution indicators except for one, toxics, improved. Specifically, pollution loads of nitrogen and phosphorous were lower in 2020 than in 2018, so we saw a corresponding improvement in water clarity, which is critical to aquatic life.”

What is the Dead Zone? “The 2020 Dead Zone is an area that has low oxygen which is insufficient for aquatic life,” McGee explained. “It is the seventh smallest it has been in 35 years. Scientists attribute part of the size of the Dead Zone to weather, but they also agree that it’s our efforts at pollution reduction also making a difference.” Underwater grasses took a hit in the bay in 2018 and 2019 because of heavier than usual rainfall. Grasses are important ecologically because they provide habitat for fish and crabs as well as have their own pollution-removing capacity. Upgrading wastewater treatment plants is one thing that watershed states have “done a great job on,” according to McGee. Climate change is another contributor to bay problems.

“Pennsylvania is the jurisdiction that is furthest off track in terms of meeting pollution reduction goals. We need to have significant in-state and federal investment, particularly in agriculture,” she said. Without PA’s full cooperation, there is no way the pollution reduction goals can be met.

CBF Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore chimed in with growing concerns about rock fish, more popularly known as striped bass. “These bass are arguably the most important recreational and commercial fin fish we have in Chesapeake Bay,” he said. He noted that over the past few years there’s been a concern about the health of the rock fish population, based on overfishing. The adult female striped bass, which are important for producing new populations, had dropped about 40% between 2013 and 2017.

Baker summarized PA’s annual bay woes this way: “It all comes down to providing Pennsylvania farmers with cost-share funding to put in place the practices which keep the farmland inside Pennsylvania as opposed to flowing into the Susquehanna River and down into the main stem of the bay. In many respects, Pennsylvania is the victim of the EPA being missing in action. What we hoped the EPA would continue to do in this past administration is provide funding assistance from the federal government to Pennsylvania to help farmers put into place best management practices.

“That does not exonerate the Pennsylvania General Assembly,” he continued. “They have been reluctant to provide the type of assistance to farmers in the Commonwealth that Virginia and Maryland, specifically, have provided to their farmers. We feel that the farmers in Pennsylvania are the victims because they have repeatedly demonstrated willingly to put practices in place.”