ANNAPOLIS – The Chesapeake Bay Foundation released its annual report card on the health of the bay Tuesday, reporting “dismal” findings at odds with recent reports of overall bay improvement.
The State of the Bay 2003 report issued by the non-profit advocacy group rated bay health at 27 of 100, one point lower than last year. A score of 100 would reflect a pristine bay as seen in the early 17th century by the region’s first European settlers.
Efforts by bay states and the federal government, the report said, have “largely stemmed the steep decline of the bay.” But, it also said maintaining the bay’s health at a low level is “unacceptable.”
“Our bay’s health remains exceptionally poor,” said foundation President William Baker.
Baker criticized statements made here last week at a news conference held by federal and state scientists. At that meeting, scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as Maryland and Virginia agencies, said the bay has continued to improve from its low point in the early 80s, and has shown resilience in the face of this year’s deluge and hurricane.
He said the statements were “faint praise,” and would reverse save-the-bay efforts.
The foundation report cites nitrogen pollution as the “chief culprit” in bay degradation, and gives the bay’s nitrogen content a score of 13 of 100, a three-point decline from last year. Nitrogen pollution destroys habitat by feeding algal blooms that block sunlight and choke the water’s oxygen supply as they decompose.
Nitrogen washes into the bay via treated and untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, urban storm water and air pollution.
With unusually high rainfall this year, 50 percent above average according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the foundation estimates that a “staggering” 459 million pounds of nitrogen will enter the bay – a major setback from the 10-year average of 320 million pounds a year.
All six watershed states – Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – along with the District of Columbia and the federal government agreed in April to reduce nitrogen pollution to 175 million pounds per year by 2010, a goal that would require a 110-million-pound reduction each year.
Baker expressed his frustration with what he called the “politics of postponement,” saying that the bay states and the federal government have failed to take appropriate steps to reach this goal.
Last month, the foundation reported that only 10 of 300 plants releasing waste into the Chesapeake use the newest technology to curb nitrogen at a state-of-the-art level, and two-thirds of the plants employ no nitrogen-removal technology. To bring all plants up to optimum nitrogen reduction could cost as much as $4.4 billion, the Washington Post reported.
For bay states to enforce the federal Clean Water Act and live up to their promise, the foundation said, nitrogen reduction standards should be mandated in all sewage treatment plant permits.
That means the fight for a clean bay is far from over, Baker said, and why he’s still puzzled at the positive trends highlighted in last week’s news conference on the bay.
“I think what we saw last week was a political spin on the data that I think is inexplicable,” Baker said.
“You’ve got to look over the long haul,” said Richard Batiuk, EPA associate director for science, who spoke at the news conference last week. “Is it restored? No. Is it moving in the right direction? Yes.”
To calculate the bay’s overall score of 27 out of 100, the foundation took the average score taken from 13 different indicators divided into three categories: pollution, habitat and fisheries, based on the best available scientific data.
Improvement was seen in two categories. Forested buffers to shoreline grew by more than 1,000 miles in 2002, and stocks of shad fish grew in all the bay’s major tributaries.