In 1987 and again in 2000, governors of the Chesapeake Bay region states signed agreements to reduce pollution and restore the health of the nation’s largest estuary.
These agreements contained lofty language and voluntary programs, but none of the actual regulations that would be necessary to achieve the cleanup goals.
As a result, by most measures the Chesapeake Bay’s health got worse – not better – between 1987 and 2011. According to statistics from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the bay’s overall health declined over this quarter century, as did the amount of dissolved oxygen in the bay, while the amount of algae increased, water clarity worsened, and underwater grasses were starved of light and large amounts died.
But then something miraculous happened five years ago: A turn-around. Most of these important trends reversed and started heading in a positive direction. Between 2011 and 2015, the bay’s overall health improved from a 38 score out of 100 to a 53, according to a recent University of Maryland report card on the bay’s health.
“This is one of the best grades we’ve received,” said Bill Dennison, vice president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “It’s the third best grade, in fact, in 30 years; and the best that we’ve done in the last 10 years. So that’s pretty good news.”
Some things are still not getting better for the Bay. For example, phosphorus pollution from the waste of the poultry industry on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which has continued to grow and seep into the Choptank River.
But several other important bay indicators have climbed upward the last four years, including blue crab populations, oyster harvests, dissolved oxygen levels, and water clarity, according to date from the University of Maryland and state agencies.
Aquatic grasses – which are a critical habitat for blue crabs in the bay – expanded by an impressive 58 percent from 57,964 acres in 2011 to 91,621 acres in 2015. However, to put this in perspective, the grasses are still down about 85 percent from the 600,000 acres of grasses that historically filtered and pumped oxygen into the nation’s largest estuary. And the bay grasses still remain about 20 percent below the 114,000 acres that had been set as a 2010 goal of the Chesapeake 2000 cleanup agreement.
“Last year was just a banner year for grass beds around the bay,” Dennison said. “So I think we’ve built some resilience into the ecosystem”
Why the turn-around? It would be tempting to attribute the reversal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's action in 2010 to impose pollution limits on the Bay region states (also called the bay pollution “diet” or the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL.)
But really, the roots of the improvements stretch back before that – and reach all the way up into the sky.
About a third of the nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay comes from air pollution. In 2006, Maryland lawmakers (led by state Senator Paul Pinsky of Prince George's County, passed the strongest air pollution control law in America. The Maryland Healthy Air Act required the construction of filtration devices called “scrubbers” on the state’s largest coal fired power plants and a 75 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide air pollution.
In 2009, the Obama administration started imposing new federal regulations on air pollution from coal-fired power plants and tighter fuel efficiency and pollution control rules on vehicles. Because of the rise of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, this cleaner-burning fuel became cheaper than coal for electric utilities. Less coal being burned meant less air pollution falling into the bay.
“Gas is so much cleaner when you burn it than coal,” said Dennison. “And (the federal and state governments) are just doing a better job at the smokestack level of regulating those pollutants more stringently. I think the bay is seeing the benefit of that.”
Also important: Over the last decade, Maryland gradually has upgraded about two thirds of its 75 largest sewage treatment plants using money from Former Governor Robert Ehrlich’s 2004 "flush tax."
Suburban sprawl also damaged the bay in the 1980's through 2000's, through its muddy construction sites and acres of blacktop. But the real estate crash in 2008 and following years helped to curb sprawling development, giving some relief to the bay.
The big picture, however, is that the bay today isn’t that much healthier than it was during its troubled state in the 1980s. The bay’s health was rated at a 45 out of 100 in 1986, and at a 53 out of 100 in 2015. This slight improvements is encouraging, but could easily be reversed by storms and heavy rainfall, which could flush large amounts of sediment and fertilizer into the bay.
Progress in the Chesapeake could also be jeopardized by the election of an anti-regulatory, anti-environmental U.S. President in November, or by other factors.
“This is not mission accomplished,” said Dennison. “Each year the bay improves a little bit, we build more resilience for the future. But we have new challenges, including climate change, increased population, and emerging contaminants that that we have to deal with. We can’t be complacent. But we can be optimistic….. We can move the needle. This bay can start to recover some of its former glory.”