RAINY WEATHER has always been bad news for the Chesa- peake Bay. Rain washes all sorts of pollutants, sediment and debris into the bay and its tributaries, reducing water clarity and quality. In a typical year, rainfall is one of the reasons that improvement is so hard to come by.
But this past year has been anything but typical as far as rainfall is concerned. Across the Mid-Atlantic, which includes the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, rainfall records were not just broken—they were shattered. Areas that get an annual average of about 41 inches recorded around 66 inches. The 66.3 inches recorded in 2018 in the Washington area was just 1 inch shy of the rainfall recorded in 2016 and 2017 combined.
Bay researchers and advocates knew there would be consequences, and they were right. The 2018 State of the Bay Report, which is issued every other year by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, gave the bay an overall D-plus grade this year, down from a C-minus in 2016, almost entirely due to the effects of excessive rainfall.
Bay Foundation President Will Baker notes that “progress is never a straight line,” which means the region’s best efforts to bring consistent improvement to the bay ecosystem are bound to face setbacks along the way. And to be fair, the improvement seen in the bay in recent years is attributable in part to the below average rainfall recorded in 2016 and 2017.
Without a doubt, though, indicators point to a trend of improvement for the Chesapeake Bay. The ongoing effort to save the bay is increasing its resiliency over time, limiting the impact of what Baker called a “massive assault” of rainfall would have had in the past.
The report found that despite significant increases in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, a bump in dissolved oxygen helped the bay experience smaller and less persistent dead zones over the past two years. Dead zones are areas of water so depleted of dissolved oxygen that most marine life cannot be sustained.
Despite a dip in water clarity, underwater grasses, which depend on sunlight’s ability to penetrate beneath the surface, showed a slight improvement.
Fisheries, such as striped bass, blue crabs and oysters, held their own along the way, though the number of shad dipped slightly. Heavy rainfall reduces the salinity of bay water, which is good for crabs, but not so good for oysters.
In other words, there is no evidence that the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint isn’t working as intended. The blueprint establishes the bay’s Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, an estimate of the maximum amount of pollution an impaired body of water can accommodate and still meet water quality standards.
The blueprint was implemented in 2010 as the EPA took on oversight of the Chesapeake Bay Program. Until then, the program had languished for more than 25 years, thanks to missed deadlines and a lack of state cooperation. More recently, the program has survived repeated attempts by the Trump administration and the previous Congress to defund EPA’s bay program management budget.
Now, researchers are finding that significantly less pollution is entering the bay than in years past. Throughout the watershed, farmers are using best management practices to limit fertilizer and manure pollution, and municipalities are improving the efficiency of their wastewater treatment plants. Progress is lacking somewhat in curbing polluted urban and suburban runoff from streets, parking lots and residential lawns.
A big problem is Pennsylvania, where the Susquehanna River winds hundreds of miles through farmland and Rust Belt cities collecting pollutants that are then dumped into the bay. The Susquehanna accounts for at least half of the fresh water that enters the bay, but Pennsylvania has been slower than other states in the watershed to clean up its waterways. In 2016, the non-profit American Rivers listed the Susquehanna at No. 3 among its top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.
The EPA has the authority to withhold grant money and impose other sanctions if Pennsylvania continues to underfund cleanup efforts or fails to meet the goals of its Watershed Implementation Plan.
The objective of a score of 40 by 2025 is still within reach, but there can be no let up in effort or funding. Every partner, and every jurisdiction, must do their fair share to keep the progress on course.