Days after the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) released its annual report card on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, some of the study’s authors met virtually Thursday with U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to discuss what can be done next to ensure the Bay’s health.
Using two dozen metrics — many dealing with environmental factors, but others taking into account socioeconomic conditions of communities in the Bay watershed, as well as the health of specific Bay tributaries — the Bay itself was given a grade of C, an improvement from last year’s C-minus. The health of the overall Bay watershed clocked in at B-minus, unchanged from the year before.
“I guess my parents would be OK with my B-minus grade, but they would say I could do better,” Cardin observed, and wondered: “How did we wind up not getting an A-plus when we’re all good people working hard to make things better?”
Bill Dennison, a professor of marine sciences and vice president for science applications at UMCES, said the latest grade represents demonstrable progress. The first report card, released in 2006, gave the Bay an overall grade of D-plus. Cardin agreed.
“When I was young, there were certain areas of the Bay, or tributaries, that you would not want to go near, because they were so polluted,” he said. “Most were adjacent to communities that were underserved for so long. We’re trying to make up for that.”
The UMCES scientists — Dennison; Vanessa Vargas-Nguyen, a science integrator and instructor; and Imani Black, an oyster farmer and founder of the group Minorities in Aquaculture who is doing graduate work at the center — suggested that while the environmental health of the Bay is improving by many measures, the socioeconomic health, especially in poorer areas and communities of color, continues to lag.
“For us to make meaningful change, we need to go beyond mere research and really engage with communities,” Vargas-Nguyen said.
The state of Maryland has been working on improving the Bay’s health since the 1980’s, when then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes (D) created the Chesapeake Bay Program. Over time, Maryland got buy-in from the federal government and the other states in the Bay watershed — Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York, along with the District of Columbia — and in 2010, the parties reached a historic agreement to reduce Bay pollution by 2025, with each state given specific goals.
Dennison said that while some states may fall short of their goals, measurable progress is evident in certain key areas. He said that air quality is improving and that sewage treatment in the Bay watershed is now good — with the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility in Washington, D.C., a worldwide leader.
“We’ve done great with the pipes,” he said. “We’ve done really well with the tail pipes of our cars and the the smokestacks of our factories and power plants.”
But the Bay continues to suffer from agricultural and urban runoff, the scientists agreed.
“It’s not very easy, because we’re talking about private landowners,” Dennison said. “These are people making decisions.”
Black said farmers and watermen in the Bay region often feel unfairly targeted by government regulators, politicians, environmentalists and the media, who don’t realize that they’re coping regularly with environmental challenges, whatever the cause.
“A lot of people feel misunderstood about what they go through on a daily basis,” said Black, who has farmed oysters both in the Cambridge area and on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
Runoff from farms in Pennsylvania are especially problematic, Cardin and the researchers said — a familiar refrain for stakeholders downriver from the Susquehanna River and its Keystone State tributaries.
“If the farming on the Maryland side is clean and the Pennsylvania farming is not, it aggravates the Maryland farmers,” Cardin said.
Vargas-Nguyen said Pennsylvanians and other upriver states do not feel as connected to the Bay as states like Maryland and Virginia, where the estuary is plainly visible in many places and residents are aware that they need to be stewards of the watershed.
“I think one of the challenges we have is to get people to understand their interconnection and their connection to the Bay,” she said.
Cardin said he was optimistic that President Biden’s “Build Back Better” programs, including an infrastructure plan being negotiated on Capitol Hill, will result in more money and better health for the Bay.
But Dennison said the conversation about Bay health has to change over the long term. Policymakers, scientists, property owners, advocates and other stakeholders have to consider a variety of factors, he said, from climate change to what to do about chicken waste to how to transfer sediment from the Conowingo Dam and the Port of Baltimore to lower parts of the Bay that need it, like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, where wetlands need fortifying.
“I think we have to reimagine the Bay,” Dennison said. “We keep talking about restoring the Bay. Restoring it to what? 1950? To John Smith? No, we need to reimagine the future.”