The Chesapeake Bay from Virginia's Eastern Shore (Ken Lund via Flickr)
The Chesapeake Bay from Virginia's Eastern Shore (Ken Lund via Flickr)

Despite billions in state and federal funding, efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay have made no overall progress since 2020, according to the 2022 “State of the Bay” report released Jan. 5 by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The report, released every two years, includes an overall score based on 13 indicators of ecosystem health.

Blue crabs, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most beloved species, faces major threats from climate change, invasive species and habitat loss. Last year saw the lowest blue crab population ever recorded in the Bay. (Jay Baker/Maryland Government via Flickr)

This report, like the last one, gave the Bay and its surrounding watershed a D+ grade. On a scale from 1 to 100, the Bay earned a 32 this year — only 5 points higher than when the foundation began the report in 1998. The findings also reconfirmed that the jurisdictions responsible for reducing pollution in the Bay, which includes six neighboring states and D.C., will not meet the 2025 targets required to restore a healthy watershed.

Still, scientists and leaders from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation expressed some optimism at a press conference Thursday morning. New leadership at the federal and state levels (including Maryland Gov. Wes Moore) and federal funding set to become available in 2023 may enable more progress.  

“Reducing agricultural pollution and urban polluted runoff are the defining challenges of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup,” said Hilary Falk, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s president. “Some of this news is frustrating to some, and I will count myself in that list, but if we can commit to hard work and new partnerships [and] innovative ideas, we can lead to a brighter future for the Chesapeake Bay.”

Both Maryland and Virginia have poured investment into cleaner wastewater systems in recent years, which reduced some of the pollution going into the Bay and the rivers and streams that feed it. But urban and suburban sprawl, along with the destructive impacts of climate change, have stymied progress in the overall restoration. Tackling runoff pollution from more diffuse sources, especially agriculture, is the crucial next step in the Bay cleanup, but it tends to be more complicated than improving wastewater plants. 

The biggest pollution threat to the bay, nitrogen and phosphorus, largely enter the water through runoff. When excess amounts of those naturally-occurring elements end up in the water, they create algal blooms — masses of algae that block sunlight and use up huge amounts of oxygen when they die and decompose. The blooms kill ecosystem-supporting underwater grasses and cause “dead zones” that suffocate creatures like fish, crabs and oysters.

Bay states have made some reductions to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, but the report says it’s not nearly enough, especially in the face of climate change. For one thing, increased rainfall means more storm runoff: water flowing from agricultural and developed land, taking pollution with it.

“Warmer water holds less oxygen, and this actually has offset part of our pollution reduction efforts,” said Beth McGee, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s director of science. In addition, McGee said Bay ecosystems remain threatened by habitat loss, legacy toxins like mercury and PCBs and new pollutants like PFAS and microplastics. The total number of blue crabs in the Bay reached the lowest level on record in 2021. 

On the positive side, the eastern oyster, another iconic Chesapeake Bay species, saw a population boost in the last two years. In other good news for the Bay, the federal government has set aside hundreds of millions, or possibly billions, of dollars for Bay restoration through the  2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year. 

But cleanup and restoration efforts, in the Bay and elsewhere, will likely become more difficult and expensive over time as the planet continues to warm.

“Climate change is making our task more challenging on many fronts,” McGee said. “The fact that we haven’t changed since 2020 — the positive of that is that we haven’t gotten any worse.”

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

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