The History Of Chesapeake Bay

In the 1950s, Bernie Fowler could wade into the Patuxent River up to his chest and still see his feet on the bottom. Over a half-century since, nutrient and sediment pollution in this tributary of Chesapeake Bay made the water murky and fueled algae blooms blocking sunlight from reaching the river bottom.

By 1988, Fowler had been elected state senator and the water was so murky he couldn’t wade past his knees. Fowler started a celebrated Chesapeake Bay tradition—the annual “Sneaker Index.”

Saving The Fishing Waters At Chesapeake Bay

For the past 31 years, on the second Sunday in June, Bernie Fowler leads a group of scientists, politicians, friends and citizens into the Patuxent River. Wearing overalls, a hat with an American flag and a pair of white sneakers, Fowler wades in until he can no longer see his feet then measures the water depth.

It’s not the most scientific measure of the health of Chesapeake Bay, but it has influenced the public and politicians to clean up the water.

According to a more scientific survey by Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Fowler’s efforts have paid off. For the third year in a row, Chesapeake Bay underwater grasses have spread at a record rate with the highest annual growth since the survey began in 1984.

As nitrogen from fertilizer and other sources enters the water, it feeds algae blooms robbing underwater grasses of carbon-dioxide and sunlight. A resurgence in bay grass is one sign the water is cleaner and clearer.

Underwater grasses are critical. Everything lives in those grass beds. When the grass disappears, you lose the nursery and the food web

John Page Williams, Senior Naturalist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and an avid angler says, “Underwater grasses are critical. Everything lives in those grass beds. When the grass disappears, you lose the nursery and the food web. It is exciting to see the grass back.”

VIMS scientists mapped grass coverage across 67,000 acres of Virginia’s portion of the bay, a five percent increase over the previous year. A similar study in Maryland found 57,000 acres of grass in their share of the Chesapeake.

This year, seagrass coverage spread over 100,000 acres for the first time bringing the recovery to 57 percent of goals set for 2025. Chesapeake Bay, one of the largest estuaries in North America, recorded the best results compared to other programs around the world. VIMS touted the recovery as “one of the preeminent restorations to date.”

Reducing nitrogen pollution has been the single biggest factor contributing to the increase of bay grass. Since 1984, nitrogen concentrations have dropped by 23 percent in the Bay, resulting in a three-fold expansion in underwater grasses. Research published by Maryland Department of the Environment show the state’s farmers have cut nitrogen run off by 22 percent.

Thanks to a management plan supported by the federal government with the cooperation of six states, curbing farm and urban runoff.

Maryland Natural Resource Secretary, Mark Belton is impressed with the recovery. “The continued record growth of underwater grasses shows tremendous progress for Maryland and our partners in improving and restoring water quality through the watershed.”

Scientists working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the most influential bay advocates, are stoked about the progress but worried the gains might be all for naught.

Proposed rollbacks to federal environmental protection regulations threaten future progress

Beth McGee, the foundation’s science and agriculture policy expert, is hopeful. “Hitting yet another record in bay grass acreage is a further indication the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working.” She points to reduced pollution, smaller, oxygen-depleted dead zones and larger oyster harvests as further proof of the progress.

However, the silver cloud may have a dark lining. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funding for bay cleanup is threatened with a 90-percent cut to the $73 million budget.

McGee warns, “Proposed rollbacks to federal environmental protection regulations threaten future progress.” She encourages the EPA to stay the course. “Seeing these improvements should inspire the jurisdictions and residents to accelerate efforts to reduce pollution and restore this national treasure.”

While some areas of the bay saw great increases in grass coverage, the upper bay continues to struggle. In the survey, no lower DelMarVa tributary showed improvements in grass coverage. While reducing farm run-off has had obvious affects, urban pollution continues to be a problem.

Granted, it could take years for the results of bay cleanup efforts to take effect, the good news only inspires environmentalists and user groups to work harder towards Chesapeake Bay recovery.
Feature Photo: Jay Fleming

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