What Happens To The Chesapeake Bay Now?

Image credit: “Evening Bay splash on the rocks,” Belinda Church, 2014

One of the great turnaround stories in the history of our nation’s water bodies is that of the Chesapeake Bay. Since 1976 when the Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) first undertook a comprehensive study of the Bay, efforts to address excessive nitrogen and phosphorous degradation of water quality have steadily improved the Bay’s complex ecosystem.

In 1998, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) published its first “State of the Bay” report card on the Bay’s health, grading it a 27 on a scale of 100.

Steady albeit intermittent gains were made over the next ten years as the six states that make up the watershed addressed legal actions and made their own plans and programs to deal with nutrient pollution.

Then in 2010, a new federal strategy was launched with each state plus the District of Columbia submitting Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and the EPA and its partners developing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the watershed. Over the past seven years, additional implementation plans have been submitted by the states and District in an attempt to reduce Bay pollution levels to the point where the Chesapeake can be removed from the EPA’s “dirty waters” list by 2025.

By September 2013, when CBF President Will Baker testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife at a hearing entitled “Chesapeake Bay Restoration: Progress and Challenges,” the overall health of the Bay had improved to a 32. On that day, Baker’s testimony recognized the “importance of federal leadership for Bay cleanup” over decades that had led to the slow but steady improvement.

Three years later, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) graded the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay at 54 percent.

Despite this steady progress, many Chesapeake Bay advocates are now nervously eyeing the Trump administration’s plan to reduce funding of the Chesapeake Bay Program. According to a proposal reported by The Washington Post, the program which coordinates cleanup and monitoring efforts across the watershed could be reduced from $73 million to $5 million.

To date Congress has not acted to reduce EPA funding and programs. And as The Baltimore Sun reported, EPA Director Scott Pruitt committed to enforcing the 2010 Bay cleanup plan when questioned by Maryland senator Ben Cardin during his confirmation hearing.

It will be interesting to see how the annual report card for the Chesapeake Bay reads over the next decade. Arguably the Bay, at 64,000 square feet of watershed, will become the largest bellwether for federal environmental policy in the country.