Our Say: Report card: Efforts to save the bay still falling short

The Capital, Published December 05, 2007

In journalism and in life, you can't always give people good news. And when you keep delivering bad news year after year - even if it's both important and true - you run the risk that people will not only stop listening, but tell you to shut up and go away. Nobody loves a Cassandra. So we've got nothing but admiration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which every year doggedly presents this region's residents with bad news that they're sick of hearing, but still need to hear: The Chesapeake Bay has not gotten substantially better.

Every year, the foundation draws up a report card that boils down indicators of the bay's health into a series of ratings, then sums them up with an overall numerical and letter grade.

The bay's health, as the foundation views it, has been stuck at D for 10 straight years now. This year's report card - released before today's annual bay meeting by the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania - gave the bay an overall grade of 28, a point below last year's 29. Before that, for three straight years, the rating was 27.

To put these dismal ratings in perspective: One hundred points represents a totally pristine bay - a state of affairs that, barring the elimination of the human population, will never return. Seventy points would be a "saved" bay. Forty points would be sufficient to meet the official 2010 goal of getting the bay off the list of the nation's "dirty waters."

Problems spotlighted by this year's report card included increased phosphorus pollution carried by heavy spring rains, an ever-more-precarious blue crab population, and declining water clarity. The foundation also continues to give the bay F's for dissolved oxygen levels (which are too low to prevent spreading "dead zones"), underwater grasses, and the oyster and shad populations.

The politicians haven't sat totally idle while the foundation and other environmental organizations publicized the bay's woes. As foundation President William Baker points out in this year's report, bay watershed states have committed nearly $2 billion to upgrading sewage treatment plants. Pennsylvania has established a new program to reduce farm runoff, and the Maryland legislature just last month committed another $50 million a year to bay cleanup efforts.

This is good, but so far it hasn't been enough to counteract population growth throughout the bay watershed. The programs have only been sufficient to keep the bay where it is. They haven't been enough to produce much improvement.

With that 2010 deadline coming up fast, it's put up or shut up time for the region's politicians - not to mention the president and Congress. The latter is sitting on a farm bill that would put millions of dollars into helping farmers reduce runoff.

We're sure that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - like every Marylander - is ready for some good news.

(Revised Dec 2007)