Creek by Creek, Fish by Fish, the Bay Is Slowly Recovering

Graphic credit: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Despite a growing population in its watershed, the Chesapeake Bay continued its long, slow recovery in 2012, reports the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CFB). It may be another four decades before we can say that we “saved” the Bay, but we’re moving in the right direction.

Five of 12 key indicators improved last year while only one declined. “We can be proud of the progress we have made. It demonstrates what can happen when government, businesses, and individuals work cooperatively,” wrote William C. Baker in the president’s message to the CFB’s 2012 State of the Bay report. “But we cannot rest. … There is a great deal left to do.”

Pollution. Among pollution indicators, phosphorous loads declined and dissolved oxygen levels rose. Perhaps most encouraging was the fact that the average size of the Chesapeake’s dead zone (lacking sufficient oxygen to sustain life) was the second smallest since 1985. There was no change in nitrogen, water clarity or toxics from the previous year.

Habitat. Overall habitat scores declined slightly, with the deterioration of underwater grasses outweighing gains in resource lands. The acreage of underwater grasses, which create crucial habitat for many underwater species, had plunged 20% in 2011 and showed little improvement in 2012. The positive news is that major grass beds survived heavy rain events that bring deadly sediment runoff. On the positive side, Pennsylvania and Virginia have been converting significant acreage from farms to forests — 37,000 acres in Pennsylvania, 23,000 acres in Virginia — more than offsetting the loss of 8,000 acres in Maryland. Virginia also added 58,800 acres of protected resource lands, double the level of Pennsylvania and Maryland combined.

Fisheries. Blue crabs continued their comeback in 2012, reaching the highest winter survey since the mid-1990s. Oysters also appeared to turn a corner, thanks to a concerted restoration effort, although it may take several more years of scientific assessment to say that oysters are out of the woods (to use an entirely inappropriate metaphor). Indicators for shad and rockfish remained steady.

Looking ahead, the CFB report highlighted efforts to save menhaden, a foundational fish species upon which other fish and wildlife prey. Among other actions, Virginia is considering imposing a catch limit on the species. (See Don Rippert’s political analysis here.) Cattle-farming best practices, such as rotational grazing and fencing cattle out of local streams, are being implemented. And local governments are investing more in storm water management.

While state governments, local governments and businesses will need to invest billions of dollars more in the years to come, the CFB dangled the encouraging prospect that innovative technologies and creative approaches might reduce the price tag. States the report: “The projected costs are already dropping in many jurisdictions. For example, a year ago, Frederick County, Maryland, estimated reducing polluted runoff might cost $4.3 billion. That number dropped to $1.5 billion when the state provided information about approved techniques. We believe these costs will continue to decrease.”

Bacon’s bottom line: It hasn’t been easy summoning the political will to spend tens of billions of dollars on the Bay. But the financial sacrifice becomes easier to bear when we see the results. For many years the best that could be said, it seemed, was that the Bay was deteriorating more slowly. Now it’s actually healing. That knowledge bolsters our commitment to forge ahead.

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21 responses to “Creek by Creek, Fish by Fish, the Bay Is Slowly Recovering

  1. I should think it would take several years of continued improvemet before we can claim that a trend in the right direction is established.

    • Hydra:

      The improvements since 2008 have been consistent. The State of the Bay Report is written every two years on even years. So, there has been 2008, 2010 and, now, 2012. Beyond that, you can go back to 2000 and see older State of the Bay Reports.

  2. I think the program is deeply flawed because it does NOT measure river by river not to mention creek-by-creek so you don’t know which rivers are improving in what ways and which rivers are not improving in other ways and if you are every going to convince localities to take their share of responsibility for the Bay – they need to see the data for their rivers.

    That would put some badly needy transparency and accountability where it needs to be – where the changes are happening.

    Right now, for instance, could anyone tell me in terms of nitrogen and phosphorous – what the numbers are for Richmond, Fredericksburg and Washington and what the desired baseline number is for those rivers?

    if you cannot tell me of the 3 who has the highest (or lowest) levels of nitrogen or phosphorous (other other metrics) then how would you know where to concentrate efforts and to know what efforts to use?

    this is hocus pocus, feel-good, green-weenie science and little more than that.

    they take measures of the Bay but it’s like a steering wheel that’s disconnected from the wheels.

    if the wheels go sideways, and they do, what localities know that it’s their section of river that needs more attention?

    • Your yapping and quacking makes my head hurt. The monitoring station closest to your home is USGS station 01668000 on the Rappahannock River near Fredricksburg VA.

      Here is a link to the load table data from that station since 1989.–+RAPPAHANNOCK+RIVER+NEAR+FREDERICKSBURG%2C+VA&PCODE=ALL&YEAR=ALL

      Stop embarrassing yourself. Do some research.

      • As a paddler of 30 years, I am well familiar with USGS stations which for the most part measure water levels but do have some other water quality data to include nitrogen – that go back long before the Chesapeake Bay program even existed.

        My point is that you and I and 99% of people have no idea for our respective localities what our local rivers look like in terms of water quality.

        For instance you would likely not know what the actual readings for nitrogen are for that station you cited and even if you did, you’d likely not know how it compared to a river with normal/desirable nitrogen levels much less how it might compare to other rivers in Va and whether it was trending up or down, etc because as good as the Bay Program is in generating a report card for the Bay, there is no such report card for the rivers and streams that really are the foundation of the Bay.

        so you likely have no clue what your own Potomac River contributes to the Bay’s various metrics and consequently no involvement at all in encouraging your locality to step up it’s game or…that it already has and your river is trending up and actually helping the bay..

        You actually mention in another thread a supposed linkage between nitrogen and phosphorous and bay grasses and oysters. Do you know the data for your own Potomac River where you live? Do you know if those levels are healthy and contribute to the improving health of the bay or the opposite? If you don’t know, how can you help ? What should you do to help? What would you tell Fairfax County to do (or not)?

        My point is that reports cards at the Bay level while interesting do not engage people at the local level – and they should – because it’s at the local level where things like storm water runoff very much adversely affect the bay, the bay grasses, the oysters and crabs, etc… that the Bay Report card purports to be “monitoring”.

        I say again.. without this connection to people and localities whether the Bay trends up and goes to hell in a handbasket does not engage people to feel some level of responsibility themselves nor get on their locality to do a better job at the things that are harming the Bay.

        This is feel-good, green-weenie, environmentalism at it’s worst.

        It’s all PR. As with other things, I want to see an EFFECTIVE program that actually does work and actually targets resources to where they are needed rather than just advocating for billions of dollars (in taxes) thrown at everything and nothing in particular and at the same time telling each and every farmer – no matter how intensive or harmful or not, their activities are – each one has to do the same thing…

        this is a recipe for failure. you will build up tremendous opposition among the farming community (and for good reason) and at the same time, the people who REALLY ought to have some level of responsibility and concern- those who live where impervious surfaces are growing with attendant storm-water runoff are … clueless …or opposed to things like storm water authorities – because – they do no connect such things with the health of the Bay – because we do not report such information – at the local level in the same level of detail and data that would show them why such things are not only important – but vital if they really do care about the longer term health of the Bay.

        It’s everyone’s direct responsibility if you play a role in the things that do create runoff that harm the bay – and believe me – you do.

        Sorry to YAP about this guy… but it’s the gosh darn truth if you really wanted to do more than just “feel good” about things like silly color-coded “report cards” that don’t really involve you personally.

        Having said that, I agree with DJ that Bacon’s article is EXCELLENT.

      • Actually DJ makes a very good point in support of my “yapping” here.

        go look at the link that DJ brought up – and try to decipher it. Try to determine if the nitrogen levels for that particular gauge are trending up or down and what “grade” they’d get using the same grading system that the Bay folks are using.

        Now DJ – homework for you my boy. Go find that data for your river and tell me what the trend is and what “grade” it is . How does it compare to the Rappahannock, York and James?

        If your complaint was that the data IS collected rather than NOT collected, I stand partially corrected. It is somewhat collected on a mostly random basis by different agencies for differing purposes, not fused into one database and not fused into a “report card” for citizens and localities to know where they stand on their share and responsibility of the cleanup of the Bay.

        So how about it DJ – can you show me a Report Card for the Potomac where you live? Yap away now.

        • LarryG:

          Funny how you will bow at the altar of global warming because “scientists say so”. However, you declare the state of the bay report to be ” feel-good, green-weenie, environmentalism” because you don’t have access to the raw data used in the reports. Perhaps you can convince Ken Cuccinelli to subpoena the data from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

          As for data on rivers affecting the bay – yes, I have seen the data. I will try to go back and find it again for you. Four or five major rives (including the Potomac and Choptank) are monitored for water flow, nitrogen, phosphorous, grasses, etc.

          It’s really not the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s calling in life to turn you into a marine biologist anymore than Michael Mann owes me a PhD in Climatology.

          If you want the data – it’s out there. If you want a detailed understanding – get a degree in Marine Biology and then volunteer at the CBF.

        • Here’s a start for you in understanding the Chesapeake Bay, LarryG:

        • You lack of understanding does not change the facts. The data is systematically collected and published by the United States Geological Survey. Period. The data is collected, measured and analyzed for all major rivers feeding the Chesapeake Bay. Period. That data is used as one of the main inputs to the State of the Bay Report. Period.

          Now, if you believe that the CBF should produce a State of the Potomac River Report in order to create momentum among the people who live in the Potomac watershed – that could be a valid point. However, it does not obviate the high quality research being done by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the USGS, the Chesapeake Biological Lab, etc.

          • well,, at least folks are TALKING about this.

            re: ” Now, if you believe that the CBF should produce a State of the Potomac River Report in order to create momentum among the people who live in the Potomac watershed – that could be a valid point.”

            that is my ENTIRE point.

            what is the real purpose of the Bay “Report Card”?

            Now how do you translate that into local action and responsibility?

            How do the people of Richmond understand and SUPPORT the NEED for a storm water authority if they do not really understand the current status of the James in Richmond and what needs to be done to improve it and get it to be a net contributor to Bay cleanup rather than degrading the Bay?

            What would/could YOU do in your local area on your local streams if you saw the Bay Report Card had issues?

            Would you KNOW if your own local streams were part of the cause of the Bay’s distress or not?

            Until we propagate the Bay Report Card to localities – people do not know and they feel no responsibility to do anything but even if they were so inclined, they’d not know what exactly needed to be done to say nothing of what would give the most bang for the buck ….

            .. BECAUSE….unlike the Bay folks ideas that we need to throw a lot of money at it everywhere… the reality is we have limited resources and we need to make them count – fiscal realities.

            the other issue is that opposition gets generated when you talk about expensive changes and there is no evidence at the local level to generate support for changes especially when they result in local costs for things like storm water authorities.

            The Bay is counting on the EPA to force draconian changes on localities and the localities are, as TMT alluded, not going to take it without a fight.

            this, as opposed to having local citizens on board with changes and wanting to do their collective part to improve the Bay.

            I just totally object to the Bay folks approach to this.

            It fosters opposition rather than local citizen support and responsibility.

            They are relying on a big govt approach rather than getting citizens directly involved by SHOWING THEM the problem at the local level.

            I’m an environmentalist – but I am also a fiscal conservative and I believe that if people know the data many, not all, will do their part – but they have to see the evidence and the Bay folks, despite LOTS OF DATA, have chosen to NOT do at the River level what they do at the Bay level.

            and that’s regrettable.

  3. Jim:

    Great article. I read the report when it was first released a day or two ago. In my layman’s mind the Nitrogen / Phosphorous levels drive the dissolved oxygen levels which, in turn, drive the oyster population. I believe that there is something of a chain reaction where the first indicator might improve before the second and the second before the third. I have always believed that the keys to the Bay are the oyster population and grass cover. If you get oysters and grass then you start to get better water clarity (I think). Once the water clarity improves – Katy bar the door. The Bay could get back to a 70 rating while we’re still around to see it. That would be a recovery of epic proportion.

    The nitrogen / phosphorous levels (mostly phosphorous of late) seem to be driving the dissolved oxygen. The oysters are slowly starting to make headway. Will the grasses be next? We’ll know at the end of 2014. If that happens one could believe we are on our way to saving the bay.

  4. The point that both Larry and Don agree upon is one that I share as well: It would be helpful to make key water-quality data available to the general public. I would like to know what the water quality is for the James River near where I live.

    Having written about Henrico County’s stream restoration projects, I want to see if I can get a Henrico County engineer to address our homeowners association about cleaning up the creek in our subdivision. The association already has obtained easements to create a “nature preserve” buffer around the creek, and we have built up a small fund that we could, perhaps, use to make erosion- and sedimentation-control improvements.

    It would be helpful in making the pitch to my neighbors to know what the water quality in the James River is in the area where the water from our creek eventually winds up. People would be more willing to make that investment if they knew they were accomplishing something tangible.

    Unfortunately, the USGS data that Don pointed to measures only the water quality for a spot on the James miles downstream, in the city of Richmond. I suppose there are cost limitations to how many points can be monitored. I wonder if any other data exists.

  5. Jim:

    A lot of data is available. The best source is the EPA’s Storet database. The database will accept requests and return an extract to your e-mail. However, you must then interpret the data.

    Here is an example of an inquiry (sorry for the length of the link):

    Also – reading LarryG’s comments is like panning for gold. You have to wade in and sift through a lot of useless dirt before coming to a valuable nugget or two. However, there are such nuggets. Here are a few:

    1. The research on water quality is performed by too many organizations without a consolidating / clearing entity. This makes it hard for concerned citizens to get more than a passing understanding of the matter.

    2. Organizations like the CBF tend to summarize their research into a macro format without an ability to drill down. It’s almost like they have forgotten the point that “All politics is local.”.

    3. The academics who do the research are generally poor communicators to laypeople. They tend to jump directly to a very detailed discussion of particular problems when they are explaining a problem. These environmental organizations need a “Communications Department”.

    4. Aggregate costs are poorly understood. Ken Cuccinelli recently threw out his shoulder patting himself on the back for his efforts against EPA storm water regulation for the Accotink Creek in Fairfax County. As usual, Cuccinelli misrepresented the matter in an effort to energize the Teapublican, anti-government base. As usual, the low wattage members of the Teapublican base became almost sexually aroused by Cuccinelli’s display of false bravado. Lost in the melee was a necessary discussion of crappy environmental engineering, dam building, nitrogen burial and flash flooding caused, in part, by VDOT incompetence and intransigence. At the end of the story there needed to be a cost benefit analysis to determine what course of action to pursue. Instead, the lifelong shyster and professional politician Cuccinelli went searching for loopholes in the EPA regulations rather than answers in a cost / benefit analysis. I guess it’s too much to ask for Candidate Cuccinelli to bear the weight of a full, fair and honest analysis on his narrow shoulders. That’s what you get when you elect people with no practical experience to high office.

  6. The EPA’s lawsuit on Accotink Creek in Fairfax County was dismissed by a federal judge yesterday (1/4). The judge ruled for the AG and Fairfax County that the EPA did not have jurisdiction over storm water since it is not a pollutant. Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said the victory saved Fairfax County taxpayers around 2 cents on their real estate taxes. A bipartisan victory over America’s Worst President.

    • TMT – what is the do da does Obama have to do with this? The EPA is no different under Obama than under Bush when it comes to this kind of pollution.

      The judge may have ruled on a technicality but there is no question about stormwater being a pollutant. It’s a witches brew:

      and I would say that no matter how one feels about Obama, that at the local level to shirk responsibility for local things that adversely impact the bay is less than wonderful morally and ethically.

    • Did the judge really say that? Or, did the judge throw out the use of stormwater as a pollutant in the section of the EPA code that the EPA was trying to use in this case? My understanding is the the EPA has regulated stormwater for years through the Clean Water Act.

      John Foust voted not to sue the EPA, didn’t he?

      It would cost me two cents more to clean up Accotink Creek? Really? And that’s a problem. Did you perhaps mean 2 percent?

      • LarryG;

        This is more Virginia bull****. The Accotink Creek fiasco was occasioned by state and local actions and needs to cleaned up by state and local action. If the pollution just stayed in Fairfax County I’d agree that it is a Fairfax County decision. But it doesn’t. It causes a lot of downstream problems. The root cause of the problem involves a series of inept decisions and incompetent actions. Start with the fact that Accotink Creek was dammed to create a 55 acre lake. Continue with the fact that VDOT never addressed stormwater runoff from the beltway despite having decades to do something.

        Now, you want to see what this “stormwater” looks like?

        Gee, I wonder why that causes problems?

        Cuccinelli found a legal loophole and the Teapublicans are proud. Meanwhile, Accotink remains an unsolved ecological mess.

        Do you really want this clown as governor? Staring problems straight in the face while looking for loopholes that allow him to ignore the problem?

        Did Cuccinelli suggest an alternative approach to fixing a creek that has been found environmentally deficient since 1996.

  7. We can blame Obama, the EPA, the Gov, Cuccinelli, etc… but my essential point is that you can only go so far with the central planning approach and that assumes you’ve got all govt parties on board and clearly we don’t.

    How do you go forward when the politics are dorked and the average citizen, even those who might be inclined to support cleanup – are essentially clueless about the data, especially the data in their locality?

    The CBF folks are relying on the govt to move this forward – no matter what farmers and the citizens know or agree with and all that does in my mind is stir up more opposition – which is translated into politics and “used” by folks like Cuccinelli to not only not act but to actually use it as an ideological counter-point.

    I actually blame some of our divided politics on those who think govt-alone can “force” solutions on those who don’t know – they might.. or .. as often as not.. we split into camps… when if the data were clear and concise – and undeniable – many folks would want to do the right thing… many more would.. and the opposition would be less effective or muted.

    we’re empowering the forces that would gladly watch the Bay turn into a cesspool… and call it the “free market”.

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