GreenLaurel: What’s Driving the Chesapeake Bay’s Improving Health?

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Despite President Trump’s suggestion to eradicate $73 million in federal Chesapeake Bay restoration funding, Congress has kept the money in its proposed budget for next year.

“Save the Bay”: A slogan we’ve seen and heard for decades. And decades is how long it has taken to get the mechanisms, financial support and state, federal and nonprofit leadership in place to revive the 64,000-acre estuary.

The good news is that we are reviving the Chesapeake Bay. The latest University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences (UMCES) Chesapeake Bay Report Card, as well as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay report, both say the Chesapeake Bay is slowly and steadily improving. Here’s why.

Most Chesapeake Bay Factors Improved with a Few Winners

Increased underwater vegetation is a signal that the bay is less polluted.

According to UMCES, the Chesapeake Bay overall health scored a 54 percent, earning a “C” grade. Though just passing, that’s one of the bay’s highest scores since 1984, when the Chesapeake Bay Program was founded. Federal, state, nonprofit and scientific resources are working to hit concrete goals set in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement by 2025.

Fisheries and underwater bay grasses both showed significant improvements this year.

Blue crabs, anchovies and striped bass are thriving, scoring an “A.” Because of fishing restrictions, blue crab populations have increased. Even oysters are improving in the oyster sanctuaries set aside as no fishing zones, and thanks in no small part to the Oyster Recovery Project.

Bay grass acreage is the highest ever recorded. More underwater grasses deliver more oxygen into waters, which helps reduce the dreaded “dead zones” in the summer.

What’s Working?

1) Winter Cover Crop Program

Since 2011, Maryland farmers increased non-commodity winter cover crops plantings. Credit: MD Dept. of Agriculture

“Hard data suggests the Maryland’s Cover Crop program is delivering results,” said Dr. Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at UMCES. “One of the issues with cleanup programs is many seem like they’ll work, but some just don’t.”

“Positive results from cover crops are supported by Wye Research data taken at the field level,” he added. “The research proves that repeated years of cover crop farming reduces the pollution entering ground water supplies.”

Funded by the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund and the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund, the Cover Crop program was kicked into gear in 2011 by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley. Now fully funded by his elected heir, Gov. Larry Hogan, Maryland’s Cover Crop program helps Maryland farmers plant non-commodity winter crops.

The only job of winter crops, mostly winter wheat, is to soak up excess chemical and chicken manure fertilizer. Less excess fertilizer means less seeping into groundwater supplies, which eventually seep into — you guessed it — the Chesapeake Bay.

2) Maryland’s “Flush Fee”

Since 2004, all Marylanders have been paying a small “flush fee” surcharge into the Bay Restoration Fund. Governor Ehrlich gets the high-five for driving this bipartisan legislation. The dedicated Bay Restoration Fund has paid the massive bill to upgrade Maryland’s largest sewage waste treatment plants, improve septic systems and the fund the Cover Crop program described above.

The result is that Maryland’s yearly sewage treatment pollution has dropped over 70 percent since 1985. Sewage pollution numbers even already beat the Chesapeake Bay’s total maximum daily load goals for 2025.

3) The Clean Air Act

Research by Dr. Keith Eshleman and Dr. Robert Sabo at the UMCES Appalachian Laboratory suggests reducing nitrogen oxide from vehicle tail pipes and power plant smokestacks meant less nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The Clean Air Act’s 1990 nitrogen emission amendments led to improved vehicle catalytic converters and coal-fired power plant air scrubbers. Better nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution controls translated into less chemical pollution floating into the air. Air pollution gets absorbed by waterways, including the streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, which has allowed those efforts to pay off.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the article. I am very happy to learn the Bay Restoration program is working since I was questioning its efficacy.

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