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State of the Bay: Still sick but getting better

By RUSTY DENNEN

The health of the Chesapeake Bay is still “dangerously out of balance,” but slowly getting better.

That’s according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2012 State of the Bay report. The foundation also outlined its priorities for the coming year.

The overall health of the bay is up one point over the last report in 2010 (from 31 to 32), and up four points since 2008. Of the 13 indicators that make up the latest report, five improved, seven stayed the same and one declined.

“Continued progress shows what can be done when governments, businesses and individuals work together to save local rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay,” CBF President William C. Baker said. “While the bay is still dangerously out of balance, I am cautiously optimistic for the future.”

CBF prepares the snapshot of the bay’s health every other year. It assigns to each category an index score of between 1 and 100, and a letter grade.

The report examines bay fisheries and plant life, water quality and land uses. Categories include: oysters, shad, crabs, striped bass, underwater grasses, wetlands, forested buffers, resource lands, toxic compounds, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, and phosphorus and nitrogen pollution.

In 2012, levels of phosphorus pollution improved, as did levels of dissolved oxygen, resource lands, oysters and crabs, according to the report released on Monday.

The score for underwater grasses dropped two points to a D minus, the only indicator to fall. That was because of higher water temperatures that caused eel grass die-offs in the lower bay, and heavy rains that washed sediment and pollution into waterways.

Aquatic vegetation such as eel grass provides nursery areas for young fish and crabs and helps water clarity by holding sediment in place.

The latest report notes that the overall score of 32 is far short of a goal of 70, which would represent a restored bay. In 2010, the index score for the bay was 31.

The vibrant estuary explored by English explorer Capt. John Smith in the early 1600s—with its abundant fish, oysters and other aquatic life—would rate a perfect 100 on CBF’s scale.

The report comes as the federal government and bay states implement actions aimed at restoring the bay by 2025.

The Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 enacted a strict “pollution diet” for bay states that limits the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments allowed to flow into the estuary each year.

Nitrogen and phosphorus—compounds in fertilizer, animal waste and sewage—promote growth of vast blooms of algae during the spring and summer months. When the tiny organisms die, they consume oxygen needed by other aquatic life.

Sediment—a major source of pollution in by rivers such as the Rappahannock—covers shellfish beds on the bottom, and reduces water clarity needed for plant growth.

In Virginia, CBF’s priorities for this year include:

General Assembly approval of funding to upgrade municipal wastewater treatment plants, controlling stormwater runoff, and helping farmers with soil and water conservation efforts.

Working with state and local officials to ensure that the state meets its two-year bay cleanup benchmarks.

Ensuring that Virginia implements the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s menhaden management plan.

“We have made progress, but much of the Bay and many local waterways don’t provide healthy habitat for fish, oysters, and other aquatic life,” Baker said. “Pollution has cost thousands of jobs and continues to put human health at risk.”

Read the CBF report: cbf.org/document.doc?id=1411

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

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