Bay dead zone to be 'bad as usual'

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer

The Chesapeake Bay should have a large swath of water devoid of oxygen again this summer, threatening the survival of fish, crabs and oysters. About 1.39 cubic kilometers of the bay - a long line stretching from northern Anne Arundel County to the tip of St. Mary's County - is expected to have so little oxygen that almost nothing can survive, according to a forecast issued this morning.

That's considered to be "average" when compared with the past 22 years.

Or, as Dr. William Dennison of the University of Maryland put it: "Bad as usual."

This dead zone encompasses water that has 0.2 mg/liter or less of oxygen in the water, a state called "anoxia." Most fish prefer levels of 5 mg, and crabs need 3 mg.

A larger zone of low-oxygen water - 2 mg or less, or "hypoxia" - also will hit the bay this summer. The forecast for that area will be available later this month.

And this is just the main stem of the bay - not the rivers and creeks. There's increasing evidence that the rivers and creeks also experience a severe lack of oxygen.

When there's no oxygen in the water, there's a constant stress on marine life as it tries to survive.

It can lead to crab jubilees, when crabs scurry toward land in an effort to find oxygen-rich water. It also can lead to fish kills, such as one last week in Baltimore's Inner Harbor that had thousands of dead fish floating in the water at a prime tourist attraction.

Oysters and clams, sitting on the bay floor with no way to move, simply die.

Frustrated at yet another sign that the bay is in trouble, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a blistering statement from Roy Hoagland, its vice pres-ent for environmental protection.

"It is a real tragedy when a huge segment of the Chesapeake Bay is expected to be devoid of oxygen, and the government calls it moderate," Mr. Hoagland said.

The foundation used the forecast's release as a platform to talk about the need for more money to help the region's farmers implement bay-friendly practices. The federal Farm Bill is up for reauthorization before Congress, and the foundation is pushing a measure that would direct more of the government's agriculture money to the bay region.

"That the bay is in critical condition is no surprise; the surprise is that that condition is acceptable," Mr. Hoagland continued. "It is outrageous that our elected leaders have not broadly implemented proven programs that will reduce pollution and restore our rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay."

Officials at the Chesapeake Bay Program - the federal-state partnership that oversees the bay cleanup and released the forecast - acknowledged that the bay still has a long way to go.

"The forecast reminds us that we must continue to aggressively pursue restoration efforts throughout the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed," Director Jeffrey Lape said in a statement.

But Mr. Lape said it's not up to the government alone to rescue the bay. He called on the 16 million residents of the bay watershed to lend "active support" to the cause.

In 2000, state and federal leaders set ambitious goals for cleaning up the bay by 2010 and getting it off the nation's "dirty waters" list. But 2010 is approaching, and few of the goals have been met. Many of the goals will be impossible to reach by 2010, such as restoring thousands of acres of wetlands and grass beds, or increasing the populations of oysters and fish.

The forecast was developed by scientists from the University of Maryland, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies. They look at factors such as rainfall, river flow, temperature and other things that vary from year to year and can affect the bay's health.

For example, heavy spring rains flush nutrients into the water that cause algae blooms, which eventually die and suck oxygen from the water. A dry year sometimes means fewer algae blooms and a less-severe dead zone.

The forecast also looks at algae blooms in the Potomac River and underwater grass beds in the upper bay, Tangier Sound and the Potomac River.

For grasses, there shouldn't be much change in the upper bay and Tangier, but the Potomac should see some improvement after losing grasses last year.

Algae blooms in the Potomac should start in early summer, last one to two months and could extend for 10 to 20 miles at the peak. That, too, is considered average.

The forecast is in its third year. The idea is to use data to predict future conditions, rather than always looking at what already has happened.

Dr. Dennison, the project leader for the forecast, said he knows of only two other similar efforts in the world - a dead zone prediction in the Gulf of Mexico and an algae bloom prediction in the Baltic Sea.

"It's an emerging science," he said.

Read the full summer forecast at www.eco-check.org.


Published June 11, 2007, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

(Revised June 2007)