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Report: Chesapeake Bay's health making gains; Pa. still needs to meet its clean-up commitments

by Christina Baker

A new report by the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science says the Chesapeake Bay’s health has slightly improved but still falls short of meeting government commitments, especially in Pennsylvania.

The report card, which measured the bay’s health along several indicators and in each region, gave the bay a “C” for overall health. It listed the bay’s “overall health index” at 50% for 2021, which is a 5% increase from 2020. 

However, Pennsylvania’s habit of devoting less resources to the bay is once again reflected in the scores, as the bay’s lower region scored much higher than its upper region, which is impacted by the commonwealth.

The overall health indicator is a combination of 10 other indicators — dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, chlorophyll a, water clarity, aquatic grasses, benthic community, stewardship, walkability, and heat vulnerability index — according to the UMCES website

Pennsylvania has long lagged behind other states in progress toward the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup mandates. If the commonwealth is to reach the EPA’s targets by 2025, it would need to reduce 32.5 million pounds of nitrogen and .85 million pounds of phosphorus from its waterways.

The bay’s overall score for nitrogen on the report card declined from 2020, especially in the upper bay; however, the phosphorus scores increased in almost all regions of the bay.

The UMCES’s findings were similar to a 2020 report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In a statement, about the new report, the environmental advocacy group said Pennsylvania was “significantly behind in meeting its commitments.”

“The Bay is trending in the right overall direction, but it still has a long way to go,” Beth McGee, the foundation’s director of science and agricultural policy, said in the statement. “As most of the pollution reduction necessary must come from agriculture, it is essential that the U.S. Department of Agriculture increase conservation funding across the region.”

Deborah Klenotic, the deputy communications director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency was pleased to see that the report card showed improvement from 2020 to 2021. 

Ninety  percent of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen and phosphorus comes from agriculture, and Klenotic said the DEP has partners in “agriculture, forestry, wastewater treatment, community organizations, business, and other areas” to reduce pollution. 

“Research on [nitrogen and phosphorus] over time that EPA presented to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed states in January 2021 shows Pennsylvania’s nutrient-use efficiency is moving in a positive direction,” Klenotic said. “Levels of agricultural surplus nutrients are decreasing, as farmers are applying nutrients in a more effective and efficient manner.”

McGee said the bay foundation is “encouraging jurisdictions to invest in regenerative agriculture, plant more trees and forest buffers, and expand green infrastructure such as rain gardens and bioswales in urban areas.”

Klenotic referenced Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed initiative to use American Rescue Plan funds for Chesapeake Bay cleanup. The Legislature has not passed Wolf’s initiative, but Klenotic said if they did it would provide “tens of millions of dollars to advance Chesapeake Bay efforts.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of the States Newsroom, a network of similar news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Christina Baker is a summer intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association. Follow her on Twitter @christy_bakery.

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