ANNAPOLIS – The mid-Atlantic region’s drought years spurred growth of vital Chesapeake Bay grasses, a study released Thursday shows, but this year’s abundance of water could reverse that trend.
The study by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a nonpartisan partnership between bay states and the federal government to guide restoration, showed a baywide increase of more than 30 percent, or 20,532 acres, from 2000 to 2002. That brings the total grassy area to nearly 90,000 acres, the largest recorded since tracking began in 1978.
Scientists view bay grasses as a key indicator of the bay’s health. The grasses provide oxygen, food and habitat while absorbing nutrient pollution and curbing erosion.
“We’re hoping we’ll have enough grasses that can weather the storms of 2003,” said Christopher Conner, a spokesman for the program.
Grasses fared well due to near-record drought conditions in 2001 and 2002 because less runoff offered a respite from sediment and nutrients washing into the bay.
“When Mother Nature turns off the spigot . . . a lot of the sediments and nutrients stay on the land,” said Conner.
Sediments cloud the water and nutrients cause algal blooms, both of which block the sunlight that grasses need to thrive.
This year’s precipitation dwarfs that of 2002 and 2001. So far, 46 inches has fallen at Baltimore/Washington International Airport compared to last year’s 34 inches and 2001’s 39 inches, said Christopher Strong, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
That kind of precipitation can ravage grass beds.
“Based on what we’ve seen, a lot of these beds that began to grow in the spring never made it to the end of the summer,” said Robert Orth, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and study leader.
His observations won’t be verified until 2003 figures are available in 2004 from the Virginia Institute’s aerial photography.
A group of scientists who toured the bay on Tuesday observed large-scale shoreline erosion and cloudy water wrought by Hurricane Isabel.
Yet Isabel brought only a small part of this year’s deluge.
The bay was clouded for four months this summer, Conner said.
“How are you going to grow your lawn if it’s cloudy for four months?”
This year’s abundance of runoff “will be expected to reduce acreage of grasses in 2003,” said Michael Naylor, a biologist at Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
Yet, one year of increased runoff won’t be enough to cancel the momentum of growth accomplished so far, Naylor said.
“One single year isn’t expected to set the bay back 10 years,” he said.
2002’s growth indicates what can be accomplished in nondrought years if communities work to reduce their runoff impact, Orth said.
“It’s kind of a sneak peak of what we can do,” Conner said.
The Chesapeake Bay Program’s goal is to restore bay grasses to 185,000 acres. The acreage estimated acreage in 2002 stands at roughly 90,000 acres.