Bad grades for bay on report card

Anne Arundel's rivers score D-

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, April 03, 2008

Courtesy of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science This map shows grades for water quality in various parts of the Chesapeake Bay in 2007.

It's report card time again for the Chesapeake Bay and the grades are dismal - especially for Anne Arundel County's rivers. An area called the Lower Western Shore - which includes the Magothy, Severn, South, West and Rhode rivers - earned the worst grades of the bay in a report card issued today by the University of Maryland.

It was one of two reports on bay health issued today; both highlighted problems in the estuary's water quality.

The Lower Western Shore earned a D- for 2007, which is even worse than the Patapsco River/Back River area in Baltimore that generally is regarded as one of the worst parts of the bay. The Patapsco/Back area earned a D.

The Patuxent River along Anne Arundel's southern border also earned a D-.

"We have a real problem with degraded water quality," said Dr. Bill Dennison, who led the report card project for the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Anne Arundel's bad grades came as most of the rest of the bay saw slight improvements from 2006 on the university's report card.

The bay as a whole earned a C- in 2007. That's up from a D+ in 2006.

The baywide improvement was due in large part to the drought that plagued the region through much of last year, Dr. Dennison said.

When there's less rainfall, less pollution-laden stormwater runs into the creeks and rivers that flow into the Chesapeake.

But even a grade of C- for the bay as a whole is less than desirable, Dr. Dennison said. There has been no significant improvement over the years.

"The bay is quite resilient and will bounce back, but overall we're disappointed," he said.

When water quality is poor, vital grasses, fish, crabs and shellfish suffer. Those problems hurt commercial fishermen, tourism and people who enjoy fishing, boating, crabbing and swimming in the bay.

The university's report card evaluated several indicators of bay health, such as dissolved oxygen, clarity, underwater grasses, algae and the benthic community, which are the bottom-dwelling worms, clams and critters.

Anne Arundel's rivers continued to lose vital underwater grasses and had a subpar population of bottom-dwelling worms and critters, according to the report card.

Dr. Dennison said those indicators are "warning signs" that the health of the rivers is unbalanced.

Dr. Dennison and other bay leaders gathered on the banks of the Severn River in Annapolis this morning to discuss the bay's health. In addition to the release of the university report card, the event also included the release of the annual report from the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program.

The bay program's report, titled "Chesapeake Bay Health & Restoration Assessment," also pointed out big problems in the bay's water quality.

Nearly all of the goals for improving water quality by 2010 are falling short.

"There are some positive signs, there has been good restoration. But at the end of the day, the bay remains in degraded condition," said Jeff Lape, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is the partnership that guides overall bay restoration.

Both Dr. Dennison and Mr. Lape said the reports can help guide future efforts for restoring the bay.

The bay effort needs to be better at shifting direction when science shows which projects are working better and which areas need more improvement, they said.

Dr. Dennison said a full range of projects are needed to improve the bay: upgrading sewage plants, getting rid of old septic systems, improving stormwater controls, reducing nutrient runoff from farms and limiting nitrogen pollution in the air that falls to the water.

Today's reports show similar results to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual "State of the Bay" report.

CBF annually grades dozens of factors, and at the end of 2007, the foundation gave the bay a grade of 28 out of 100. CBF translates that number into a grade of D.

Will Baker, president of the bay foundation, said one of the bay's biggest problems is lack of attention and money from the federal government.

Mr. Baker said his group "has basically given up on this administration."

With the White House changing hands in January, Mr. Baker said now is the time for voters to speak up and ensure that the environment will be a priority during the next administration.

"We live in a democracy and in many respects, our government reflects us. What we all must do is we must speak up for our right to have clean water, clean air, a healthy environment as well as a vibrant economy," he said.

Despite the gloomy nature of the various bay reports, there remains a strong commitment to trying to rescue the bay and restore it to its former glory.

"We don't have an option," Mr. Lape said of the bay program. "We have to protect our local water resources, we have to protect our bay."

(Revised April 2008)