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By GERALD WINEGRAD
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation released its annual State of the Bay Report grading Chesapeake health a disappointing D+. This was the same rating as two years ago, but the overall health score dipped by one point to 32 out of 100.
CBF has issued this report card for decades and should be commended for its work in drawing attention to the plight of the Chesapeake. CBF makes an urgent call for action for “a system still dangerously out of balance. The road to restoration is steep, and the clock is ticking.”
CBF President Will Baker noted that “The stagnating score shows that we are witnessing apathy take hold and political will wane. We can still save the Bay and deliver the promise of clean water to the next generation, but only if our elected officials redouble their clean water commitments and invest in finishing the job.”
This underscores the low ebb of the formal bay restoration program with EPA failing to enforce pollution limits and calling requirements voluntary while being sued by several states and CBF. The restoration’s political status deserves an F.
Disturbing elements of CBF’s report card include an F for oyster recovery. This critical Bay keystone species has declined to 1% of historic levels inhibiting its ability to filter-cleanse Bay waters. Underwater grasses scored a D-. Along with oysters, their ecological functions make them the Bay’s Most Valuable Players, helping keep water clear and healthy by absorbing nutrients, trapping sediments, reducing erosion and acidity, adding oxygen, and providing essential habitat for crabs.
Once covering as much as 600,000 acres, in 2019, coverage was only 66,387 acres declining by 38% from 2018. The Bay states had pledged to reach 185,000 acres by 2010.
Water clarity is rated F, which is very bad for the bay and its grasses and oysters signifying too much sediment and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus). The sediment has smothered 70% of Maryland’s oyster reefs, eliminating production. Nitrogen reduction gets an F. This should be of grave concern as this is the nutrient choking the Bay and causing much of its water quality problems.
After 37 years of formal restoration efforts and the expenditure of billions of dollars, these grades signal a Code Red for the bay and demand a radical change in restoration efforts. And yet, CBF continues to focus on gaining more money as the solution for the problems.
More funding will help, but what is most needed is for CBF, the entire environmental community and the bay states to seek the following:
First, impose stricter regulation of farm manure pollution, especially from 609 million chickens, and better regulations and enforcement of tighter nutrient management plans. Agricultural operations are the #1 source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment choking the Bay and causing the F and D ratings.
Since 2005, CBF has refused to push for such legislation, instead flooding government money to farmers to curb pollutants voluntarily. While a “safe” approach, this has not and will not work to solve the problem. Tom Pelton, a former CBF employee, called this going from saving the bay to trading the bay.
The next highest priority is ending forest loss from development, and CBF’s efforts at the state level rate an F. We were successful in Annapolis in enacting a true net loss law. CBF should follow this example. Assuring that all new development does not increase stormwater runoff pollution is a must, and state legislation should be high on CBF’s agenda.
Legislation to stop wild oyster harvest and switch to aquaculture is essential. CBF had called for a closure of the oyster fishery 30 years ago and 10 years ago supported a phaseout of wild harvest and a switch to aquaculture. The oyster population has collapsed since, but CBF instead pursued the “safer” establishment of a commission dominated by the oyster industry to take two years to develop a plan with zero progress for oyster recovery so far.
It should be clear throwing more money at these problems will not restore the Bay.
The nonprofit CBF publishes an annual report noting the $33 million budget it raises. But the best indicator of success or failure in its mission to save the bay is not money raised but whether it is accomplishing its mission.
The grade of D+ should be a clear indicator that after 53 years and the expenditure of more than $600 million, its mission is not being accomplished, and radical changes are needed in its public-policy approach.
Clear evidence of this need is CBF’s inability to reverse Gov. Larry Hogan’s removal of $400,000 in the state budget in 2020 for CBF’s public school Bay education efforts, ending decades of state support.
Gerald Winegrad represented the greater Annapolis area in the Legislature for 16 years, where he championed efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. He served on the tri-State Chesapeake Bay Commission and taught graduate courses in bay restoration and wildlife management he authored. Contact him at email@example.com.