Bay's health is dismal in group's report card

Foundation says Chesapeake not improving

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

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ANNAPOLIS — The Chesapeake Bay's health remains in a sickly state, rating a "D"— scoring 28 of a possible 100 — in an annual report card released earlier this month by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Declines in the dissolved oxygen needed to support aquatic life, as well as declines in rockfish, crabs and shad, accounted for the low score. Underwater grasses and resource lands saw gains, while seven other indicators, including oysters, wetlands and pollution, remained unchanged from 2008.

"Very simply, the bay is polluted by too much nitrogen, phosphorous, sediment and toxicants," said CBF President Will Baker. "And each of those needs to be reduced to restore water quality so that the crabs, oysters, fin fish can return in abundance and so that human health is protected as well."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is the only governmental entity that can "holistically" address the problems the bay faces, he said.

The foundation filed a federal lawsuit in January to force the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act.

"The regulations are in place, the laws are in place; they are just not being enforced," Baker said.

He praised the General Assembly for passing a bill to require that new septic systems installed near shoreline use nitrogen-reducing technology.

But the legislature's failure to set a statewide goal for concentrating development around urban centers and infrastructure was disheartening, he said.

"The states have got to be part of a multijurisdictional team, but the team needs a captain. And the captain has to be the federal government," Baker said.

Incentives and voluntary actions are not enough to solve the water pollution problem, according to 21 percent of Marylanders called at random Nov. 20-30 in a poll commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

The survey of roughly 1,000 adults from all regions of the state found that 86 percent said it was "very important" or "extremely important" to make the bay clean and healthy.

That number stood at 95 percent for the counties of Southern Maryland, with Baltimore close behind at 93 percent. Residents of the Eastern Shore were also strongly concerned about the estuary's health, which was a lower priority for residents of Western Maryland, according to a breakdown of survey results. In general, support for the bay prevailed in urban areas.

Allen Hance, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, said the organization commissioned the survey, at a cost of about $30,000, to "help us understand better Marylanders' attitudes about the environment, particularly in a time of economic turmoil."

"I think what we found is … despite a lot of fairly gloomy [assessments of] movement and progress on bay restoration, Marylanders are still very hopeful about the possibility of cleaner waters in rivers and also in the bay. I think they also displayed a continuing high degree of interest in bay issues," Hance said.

Staff writers Erica Mitrano, Margie Hyslop and Alan Brody contributed to this report.