By LEONARD SPARKS
WASHINGTON (March 19, 2009) - The Chesapeake Bay's water quality remains poor and its fish populations threatened even though pollution from nitrogen and phosphorous improved last year, according to a report released Thursday.
The Chesapeake Bay Program's annual measurement of the bay's water, habitats and populations of fish and shellfish says the country's largest estuary is only at 38 percent of its desired health.
Officials from the regional partnership, which is overseeing the bay's recovery, also said that overall crab, oyster and fish populations are at just 50 percent of desired levels, despite improvements in nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
"The straightforward conclusion is that the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem remains severely degraded, despite the concerted efforts of federal, state and local governments for more than 25 years," J. Charles Fox, the Environmental Protection Agency's adviser for the bay, said during a presentation at the Newseum.
Fox, former secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, called the findings "unacceptable."
"Our progress over the past two decades is clearly not adequate," he said.
The biggest threat to the bay is pollution from nitrogen, phosphorous, sediment and chemicals, mainly through development and agricultural pesticides and fertilizers.
About 291 million pounds of nitrogen poured into the bay in 2008, 13 million pounds less than 2007, the report said, while the amount of phosphorous, about 14 million pounds, stayed roughly the same. The volume of sediment, however, increased by 700,000 tons to 3.3 million tons in 2008.
The contaminants combine to create an overabundance of algae, which depletes oxygen. Pollution also clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching underwater grasses that provide food and sanctuary for aquatic life.
The crabs, fish and oysters that once thrived in the bay are "far below desired levels," the report said. The population of spawning-age blue crabs fell by 23 million in 2008, from 143 million to 120 million. The disappointing health assessment contrasts with successful restoration efforts. The bay program inched closer to reaching goals in such areas as planting bay grasses and restoring wetlands, the report said.
The lack of a corresponding gain in overall health is striking, said William Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science.
"The last couple of years, we've had reduced loads of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediments to the bay," he said. "So we were expecting the ecosystem to show a positive response."
Progress could have been "reset" by an especially rainy season in 2003, punctuated by Hurricane Isabel, Dennison said. The rains "assaulted" the bay with pollution-containing runoff, he said.
Residential and commercial development also plays a role, Dennison said. Paved roads and roofs prevent rainwater from seeping into the ground, funneling it to streets and gutters where it picks up contaminants on its way into the bay.
"Rainfall now is leading to an assault into the bay," Dennison said. "You can see it from the satellite photos; you can see it when you drive across the Bay Bridge after a good rain. The entire north part of the bay is turned Mississippi River brown from runoff."
Those muddied waters can be cleared if the EPA tightens its enforcement of environmental regulations, said Roy Hoagland, vice president of environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The foundation is among several groups that sued the EPA in January, accusing the agency of failing to enforce the Clean Water Act and failing to do enough to have the bay removed from the "impaired waters" list.
Last week, members of CBF met with EPA and Department of Justice officials to discuss the suit, Hoagland said.
"It was a good-faith dialogue," Hoagland said. "We agreed to get together in the next couple of weeks."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.