Today, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released its 2022 State of the Bay Report. The biennial evaluation graded the Bay and its watershed at a D+, unchanged from the 2020 score.
Efforts to restore the Bay are struggling to reduce agricultural pollution. Urban and suburban polluted runoff is increasing amid inconsistent enforcement by government agencies, new development, and climate change. Despite these challenges, the federal/state Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, based on the world’s best science, remains the most promising plan for restoring local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. What has been lacking is implementation.
“While we’ve made significant progress, far too much pollution still reaches our waterways and climate change is making matters worse,” said CBF President Hilary Harp Falk. “The good news is that the Bay is remarkably resilient and there is tremendous energy around the table. With many new leaders taking charge – EPA administrators, governors, legislators, and within environmental organizations – we have an opportunity to prove that restoring clean water is possible. By following the science, approaching our challenges with optimism, and holding each other accountable, we will leave clean water, strong economies, and vibrant communities for the next generation.”
Established in 1998, CBF’s State of the Bay Report is a comprehensive measure of the Bay’s health. CBF scientists compile and examine the best available data and information for 13 indicators in three categories: pollution, habitat, and fisheries. CBF scientists assign each indicator an index score from 1–100. Taken together, these indicators offer an overall assessment of Bay health. Reaching an overall score of 70 or more would mean a fully restored Bay, while a 100 represents the Bay’s condition before European settlers arrived in the 1600s.
In 2022, the overall State of the Bay score remained a 32, with seven of the 13 indicators unchanged, three increasing, and three decreasing.
In the pollution category nitrogen, toxics, and dissolved oxygen indicators were unchanged, the phosphorus indicator improved, and overall water clarity declined. Recent farm conservation funding at the federal and state levels should help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which fuels harmful algal blooms that remove dissolved oxygen from the water. Monitoring data indicated the 2022 dead zone—the area of the Bay with low or no dissolved oxygen—was the 10th smallest in size since scientists began surveying it 38 years ago, an encouraging sign. Water clarity dropped one point in the report due to average water clarity in the Bay decreasing slightly in 2022 compared to 2020.
In the fisheries category, the rockfish (striped bass) and oyster indicators rose, while the blue crab indicator declined.
Striped bass populations have been declining and this year’s juvenile striped bass survey found low numbers in Maryland. However, states along the Atlantic coast have put in place stronger measures to reduce the number of fish harvested as well as catch-and-release mortality. These regulations should allow the striped bass population to rebuild by 2029, which is why the score increased despite population declines.
Oysters are seeing a renaissance of sorts. After years of overharvesting and limited natural reproduction, in 2020 and 2021 Maryland and Virginia reported the highest rates of juvenile oyster production in the past 30 years. Large-scale oyster restoration projects have been completed in eight sanctuary tributaries in Maryland and Virginia, with two more sanctuary restoration projects planned to be completed before 2025. Scientists monitoring the oyster restoration sanctuaries have found high densities of oysters beginning to build vertical reef structure, an important marine habitat.
Blue crabs fell the most of any indicator, with the overall score dropping five points. In 2022, blue crab dredge survey results found the lowest number of crabs in the Bay in the survey’s 33-year history. In response, fishery managers decreased catch limits to try to reduce overall harvest. Efforts to increase underwater grasses—important nursery habitat for blue crabs—have stalled, with underwater grass acreage hovering around 70,000 acres each year after hitting a high of 105,000 acres in 2018.
In the habitat category, scores for underwater grasses, forest buffers, and wetlands remained unchanged, but resource lands fell slightly by a point. Resource lands refer to forests, natural open areas, and well-managed farmland. The drop in score was largely due to approximately 95,000 acres of farms and forests transitioning to development across the Bay watershed during the most recent reporting period, from 2013/14 to 2017/18.
Overall, the unchanged score is largely a result of failures to make needed changes on farmland to reduce pollution. After forests, the agricultural sector is the second largest land use in the watershed and about 90 percent of the remaining reductions needed to meet the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint must come from limiting farm-related pollution.
However, the cleanup is hitting a roadblock. For years, jurisdictions made continuous, incremental progress toward Bay restoration goals by upgrading wastewater treatment plants. Today, most of the major wastewater plants in the watershed have been upgraded to stringent standards that improve overall water quality. Because of this, future water quality improvements must come largely through efforts to limit polluted runoff from farms, buildings, roads, lawns, and other diffuse sources that are more difficult to control.
Efforts to do so are complicated by climate change, which is bringing stronger rainstorms that drop more precipitation in shorter time periods. The good news is that many of the same practices that will reduce agricultural and urban runoff—such as tree plantings, restoring soil health, and limiting impervious surfaces—are the same ones that help reduce greenhouse gases and make the region more resilient to a changing climate. Saving the Bay and addressing climate change are inextricably, and fortunately, linked.
There is hope on the horizon. The recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act included $20 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support farm pollution reduction practices nationwide. And last year, Pennsylvania lawmakers approved $154 million for a new agricultural cost share program. In 2022, Virginia adopted a two-year budget that includes included $280 million to assist farmers who install farm conservation practices as well as about $190 million for urban sewer system upgrades and projects to reduce stormwater runoff.
“The State of the Bay is at a precipice,” said Beth McGee, CBF’s Director of Science and Agricultural Policy. “We need to accelerate our efforts at reducing farm pollution to ensure the watershed-wide restoration effort is successful. New funding at the federal and state levels is an opportunity to directly address the Bay’s largest pollution source, but it must be spent efficiently on the projects that provide the most benefit for each dollar spent.”
Investing in agricultural conservation practices also makes good economic sense. For every dollar spent helping farmers adopt practices that improve water quality in the Bay and its tributaries, the Bay region would see $1.75 in higher sales and earnings. Fully funding the farm pollution-reduction practices needed to restore the Chesapeake Bay would inject $655 million annually into the region’s economy, including $269 million per year in higher earnings for businesses and workers, according to a report prepared for CBF by Key-Log Economics, an ecological economics research and consulting firm based in Charlottesville, Va.
The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint requires the Bay jurisdictions to develop plans to decrease pollution to local creeks, rivers, and the Bay. However, an EPA assessment released last fall found that only Washington D.C. and West Virginia are on track to meet the 2025 goals. And in November, EPA rejected Pennsylvania’s most recent update to its Bay cleanup plan because it didn’t demonstrate how the state would meet pollution reduction requirements.
At its October meeting, the Chesapeake Executive Council agreed “to set a path forward over the next year to outline the necessary steps, and prioritize the actions needed, to meet the targets” that had been committed to.
CBF’s federal and state offices identified the following priorities to restore local streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland’s cities and towns are struggling to meet goals to reduce stormwater pollution. This source of Bay pollution recently surpassed the amount of pollution coming from wastewater treatment plants. To address this, state and local leaders should look for innovative ways to add green space, divert runoff from storm drains into rain gardens filled with vegetation, and reduce impervious surface. This should be coupled with increased enforcement to ensure permitted polluters are following the law.
CBF Maryland Executive Director Josh Kurtz said:
“Two years ago, the General Assembly approved a law to plant 5 million trees in the state by 2030. That was a good first step. However, continuing forest loss and degradation, mostly from development, is estimated at about 3,000 acres per year in the state. As the State of the Bay stagnates, Maryland would benefit from limiting forest loss as it adds new trees. Trees help prevent soil loss and reduce runoff, they naturally filter water and air, and create habitat for wildlife.
“While urban runoff is the only growing source of pollution, agriculture still remains the largest. State leaders should also focus on ways to connect farmers with state and federal resources to add conservation practices on their land, with strong priority given to permanent practices. Recent federal funding increases and a strong state budget provide a unique opportunity to alter the state’s agricultural landscape by improving soil health, which in turn would make fields more productive and reduce polluted runoff.
“Lastly, we hope the new administration being assembled by Gov-elect Moore and Lt. Gov-Elect Aruna Miller can reverse the 20-year decline in environmental enforcement activities in Maryland. Doing so would ensure that industrial polluters and others licensed to discharge pollution into local waterways aren’t violating pollution limits, which threatens the Bay and the health of Marylanders.”
With nearly 28,000 miles of polluted streams statewide, Pennsylvania has a lot of work to do to get back on track and meet its Clean Water Blueprint. As part of the $220 million Clean Streams Fund, state legislators dedicated $154 million toward a new statewide program to support family farmers in designing and implementing practices that keep soils and nutrients on the farm instead of in streams, called the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program (ACAP).
Agricultural activities are a leading identified source of stream impairment, and more than 90 percent of the Keystone State’s remaining pollution reductions must come from agriculture.
CBF Pennsylvania Science Policy and Advocacy Director Harry Campbell said:
“The recent commitments dedicating $220 million towards clean streams,have helped give the Commonwealth something it hasn’t had in some time—momentum. ACAP provides critical resources to help farmers get the job done.
“These recent investments, along with enhancing its latest watershed implementation plan and being held accountable along the way, would be significant steps toward reaching the 2025 pollution-reduction goals.
“It is critical that during this new legislative session, the Governor and legislators provide increased and sustainable funding that builds on momentum and leads to the clean water that is the right of every Pennsylvanian.
“Investment of financial and technical resources will create resilient infrastructure on farms and in communities, boost local economies, and protect human health. CBF looks forward to working with the Governor and legislators to leave a legacy of clean water for future generations.”
We are seeing some promising signs of cleaner waterways in Virginia but challenges remain, from harmful algal blooms to concerns over the blue crab population. Addressing these concerns requires accelerating efforts to reduce pollution from agricultural lands, sewage treatment plants and urban streets.
CBF Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner said:
“The legislative session that starts this month is an important opportunity for Virginia’s elected leaders to recommit to a healthy Chesapeake Bay through renewed investments in programs that reduce pollution from agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, and stormwater.
“We urge legislators to ensure investments in these crucial programs address the most effective farm conservation practices, such as fencing cattle out of streams and planting buffers of trees along waterways. This focus would pay dividends in the form of cleaner streams, thriving farms, and local economic benefits.
“For healthy rivers and streams and strong fisheries, Virginia should support mussel restoration programs and a stock assessment of the threatened blue crab population. To address the growing threats from climate change and sea level rise, we will continue to advocate for nature-based solutions to erosion and flooding that also reduce pollution to waterways.”
Federal funds and leadership are critical to achieving the Blueprint goals. In the coming year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will begin distributing the additional $20 billion the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) allocated to Farm Bill conservation programs. These programs are crucial to Bay restoration because they support farmers who use practices that help stop agricultural pollution at its source, improve water quality in local waterways and the Bay, and build climate resiliency on the farm. The 118th Congress is also due to reauthorize the Farm Bill this year.
USDA must direct a significant amount of the $20 billion IRA increase to areas in the Bay states where it can do the most to reduce farm runoff. It can do so through the Chesapeake Bay States’ Partnership Initiative it created last May. Congress should build on that investment with more conservation funding for farmers in the Bay region in the 2023 Farm Bill. Congress must also provide USDA with enough money to hire more technical experts who can work directly with farmers to put these practices in the ground.
CBF Interim Federal Affairs Director Keisha Sedlacek said:
“The $20 billion IRA boost and next year’s Farm Bill give the Biden administration and Congress the perfect opportunity to jumpstart the cleanup effort. Farm practices that improve water quality are the most cost-effective way to tackle the largest source of pollution in the Bay and its tributaries. The same practices make farms more resilient to climate change and its effects. Devoting more federal dollars to agricultural conservation in the region is a smart investment that benefits local communities, businesses, and the Bay.”