By Morgan Gibson and Jennifer Hlad
ANNAPOLIS – Despite 25 years of restoration and protection efforts, the Chesapeake Bay’s health is still bad and making only slight improvements, according to an assessment released Wednesday.
With the waters of the bay sparkling through the glass doors at the Annapolis Maritime Museum, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program released its annual Bay Barometer report — which says the bay “remains in poor condition.”
But environmental officials said the news is not all bad.
Jeff Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, called the report card “a mixed message of hope and reality.”
“What this tells me is we’ve still got a long way to go,” he said.
The report gave the bay a score of 45 percent in overall health, with 100 percent representing a fully restored ecosystem. The score is a 6 percent increase from 2008.
“The report speaks for itself. The bay is dying on our watch,” said Tommy Landers, policy advocate for Environment Maryland. “This annual report has become a broken record, and it’s time to fix it.”
The bay’s wildlife score went up 9 percent this year, which the report said is mostly due to a 70 percent increase in the bay’s adult crab population. The number of adult blue crabs in the bay increased to 223 million, the highest it’s been since 1993.
Frank Dawson, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said crabbing restrictions spurred the dramatic increase in the number of adult female crabs in 2009. He said the increase in female crabs is likely to lead to more young crabs.
“If we have more mother crabs in the bay, we’ll have more baby crabs in the bay,” he said.
But while he said he is “delighted’ to see the increase, he cautioned that only time will tell whether the increase will last.
“One year doesn’t make a trend,” he said.
Bay water quality showed only slight improvement — a 2 percent increase — and it was still called “very poor” by the report. Only 24 percent of the water quality health goals were met.
The report blamed the pollution in rain water for the low score. The report said that the bay’s decline is directly linked to the number of people living in the watershed. Since 1950, the population has more than doubled, the report said, and as of 2008, 16.9 million people were estimated to live in the bay watershed.
“Human activities continue to contribute more pollution, offsetting many of the accomplishments restoration projects have made,” the report said.
Increasing population spurs development, which leads to natural areas being paved over to “make way for houses, shopping centers and parking lots.” The pavement prevents water from soaking into the ground, prompting runoff, which picks up sediment, nutrients and other pollution and dumps it in local waterways.
Maryland lawmakers recently addressed the runoff problem, approving strict changes to storm-water pollution rules Tuesday; starting in May developers will have to use “environmental site design” on construction projects by figuring out how to get rain to soak directly into the ground.
Lape said the barometer is an important measure of bay health, but releasing it each year has created an expectation that it will make dramatic improvements quickly.
“It took us hundreds of years to get to this point,” he said, and it is the responsibility of everyone in the watershed to help improve the bay’s health.
“We cannot expect a clean bay until we get clean streams and rivers,” he said.
The state’s federal delegation agrees.
“Minor improvements aren’t good enough when the grades are failing,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and chairman of its Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. “It’s time to make some major changes.”