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Chesapeake Bay Suffering, Restoration Efforts Treading Water
By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 4, 2008 (ENS) - The health of the Chesapeake Bay is dismal and more than three decades of restoration efforts have done little to improve the condition of the nation's largest estuary, according to two independent assessments released Thursday. The reports add to a litany of evidence that the water quality throughout the bay and its tributaries is severely degraded and echo lingering concern that the plan for cleaning up the ecosystem is not working.

The Bay has long suffered from massive unnatural influxes of nitrogen and phosphorous, largely from sewage wastewater, agricultural and urban runoff, and air pollution.

These pollutants feed massive algae blooms that kill fish and Bay grasses, which provide vital habitat for the Bay's famous blue crabs.

According to the annual assessment published by the Chesapeake Bay Program - the engine behind the federal and state effort to clean up the Bay - progress on meeting water quality goals slipped in 2007.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel crosses over and under open water where the Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo courtesy CBBT)

The assessment is sobering news for state and federal officials, who pledged in 2000 to cut pollution in the Bay by half by 2010.

Just 12 percent of the bay and its tidal tributaries met dissolved oxygen standards during the summer, a sharp decrease from 28 percent in 2004 and 2006.

The assessment concludes that little more than half the pollution reduction efforts needed to achieve the nutrient goals have been undertaken since 1985.

Some 318 million pounds of nitrogen reached the Bay last year, similar to the average load since 1990 but double the restoration target of 175 million pounds.

The Bay took in some 15 million pounds of phosphorous in 2007, slightly below the average since 1990, but above the target level of 12.7 million pounds.

Bay grasses were measured at some 65,000 acres, only 35 percent of the restoration goal and down from a 2002 high of 90,000 acres.

Once plentiful, blue crab populations are dwindling. (Photo by Mary Hollinger courtesy NOAA)

The news is also grim for the Bay's shellfish. The blue crab population is not rebuilding as anticipated, according to the assessment, and is at about 78 percent of the 200 million interim target set for 2010. Last year's blue crab harvest was among the worst in six decades.

Disease continues to hamper oyster restoration and the assessment concluded the population is at about eight percent of current restoration goals.

Officials with the Chesapeake Bay Program also warned that population growth and rapid development across the Bay's 64,000 square mile watershed will make restoration of the ecosystem even more difficult.

By 2010 an additional 250,000 acres of watershed land is projected to have been developed since 2000.

"It's easy to see from this data that much more needs to be done to accelerate the pace of implementation if we are to succeed in cleaning up the Bay and its rivers," said Jeff Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

"Not only do we need major actions to accelerate implementation," he said, "but we also must grow smarter and greener to protect our local waterways and the Bay."

Annapolis, Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. The Statehouse can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

A second study, a report card released by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, echoes much of the gloomy news in the Chesapeake Bay Program assessment.

The report card, based on data gathered from more than 150 monitoring sites throughout the Bay, graded ecological conditions as a C- in 2007.

This is actually a slight increase from last year's D+, with the uptick linked to improving conditions in two rivers in Maryland's Upper Western Shore and the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore.

But the researchers caution that those improvements may in part be due to a prolonged drought last summer, as low rainfall led to less nutrient and sediment pollution flowing into the Bay.

"There is nothing here from which we can take great comfort," said University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science researcher and project leader Bill Dennison. "We are not on the road to recovery."

The long-term trends of water quality throughout the Bay are "disturbing," Dennison added. "At best, we are only holding our own against population growth and development taking place throughout the Bay watershed."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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