Sea grasses in the Chesapeake Bay. Photo credit: Jon LefCheck, via UMCES.

A first-of-its-kind study has revealed that the decades-long “Save the Bay” effort is working. Underwater sea grasses, vital to the bay’s ecosystem, are at their highest levels in nearly 50 years. Not only is this good news for the Chesapeake Bay, but the research provides hope for other impaired estuaries, proving that a coordinated government collaboration focused on reducing pollution can lead to real restoration.

In 1983, the Chesapeake Bay was in such bad shape that Congress tried something new and launched the Chesapeake Bay Program, forming a partnership between the federal government and Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Each jurisdiction committed to work together to reduce pollution from entering the estuary.

Fast forward 35 years, and thanks to those efforts–along with smart legislation and billions in investment–pollution nutrient levels have indeed decreased significantly. Nitrogen pollution, generated from sewage waste, agriculture runoff and urban stormwater runoff, has fallen 23 percent since 1983.

Sea grasses play a key role in the health of the bay’s ecosystem. The underwater vegetation provides habitats for blue crab, silver perch and striped bass; oxygenates the water and acts as a control for erosion and sediment.

Before 1983, unchecked levels of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution flowed into the Chesapeake Bay and were fueling massive algae growth. Algae crowds out and kills the sea grasses, and sucks oxygen out of the water, creating “dead zones.” This pollution was so bad that Chesapeake Bay sea grasses were decimated and fell to their lowest levels in 400 years.

“We’ve been calling these grasses our coastal canaries, the things that are most sensitive to water quality degradation, and the things we have to watch as long term indicators of these water quality situations,” said study co-author Bill Dennison, a vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, in a statement.

Nearly 100 square miles of sea grasses have returned since the clean up efforts began in earnest in 1983. Photo credit: Jon LefCheck

This study brought together scientific researchers from 10 institutions across the country to analyze 30 years’ worth of data. This type of peer-reviewed research focusing on the effectiveness of the bay clean-up had never been done.

The experts predicted what role the bay’s increased population and increased pollution played for sea grasses, and their results showed that reducing pollution levels directly led to increased sea grasses. In other words, if you clean it, they will come.

“We’re very glad to report the largest resurgence of aquatic grasses due to management actions ever recorded, right here in the Chesapeake Bay,” Dennison said.

You may be surprised to learn that you have played a part in reducing pollution from entering the Chesapeake Bay. Beginning in 2012, all homes and businesses have paid a “flush fee,” adding to a fund that has invested more than $1 billion to retrofit our state’s outdated sewage wastewater plants and inefficient septic systems.

The stormwater fees have also contributed to investment in projects that capture polluted rain runoff, preventing it from seeping into waterways. The bummer is that urban stormwater runoff continues to be the only Chesapeake Bay pollution category still on the rise. (People, get those rain barrels in place and some rain gardens planted!)

With the Trump administration once again trying to slash Chesapeake Bay Program funding, this study proves that now is not the time to stop investing into a federal-state collaboration that is actually working.

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.