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  • While the bay’s overall health has improved, the overall health of the Magothy and Severn have been stagnant over the last few years.
    Photo courtesy of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources
    While the bay’s overall health has improved, the overall health of the Magothy and Severn have been stagnant over the last few years.

Chesapeake Bay Health Improves As Government Reduces Cleanup Enforcement

Maya Pottiger
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August 7, 2018

The Chesapeake Bay’s 2017 report card, which was released in July, delivered good news: The bay’s overall health improved in 2017.

“We’ve seen tremendous progress,” said Bruce Michael, the resource assessment service director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The report was produced by the Integration & Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Despite the improvements of the Chesapeake, the Magothy and Severn rivers aren’t directly affected by these changes. While the bay’s overall health has improved, the overall health of the Magothy and Severn have been stagnant over the last few years.

“The health of the Severn River has very little to do with what’s going on in the Chesapeake Bay itself,” said Andrew Muller, an associate professor at the United States Naval Academy. “Where you might be seeing some improvements in some areas of the Chesapeake Bay, that’s not always the case for the Severn River.”

The two rivers notice more seasonal changes than consistent health improvements. A rainy spring means more runoff, bringing pollutants from land into the water. Underwater plants vary year by year, changing the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.

“They get better and they get worse over time,” Muller said. “It’s like a seesaw effect. We’re not seeing any direct trend.”

The sources of the rivers’ problems can be defined by the “four S’s,” Muller said: stormwater runoff, septics, sewers and sediments.

The best way to look at whether the health is improving is by taking yearly averages and looking at trends, said Magothy River Association President Paul Spadaro.

“The trend of the Magothy has been stagnating for years. Our health has always been around an F and a D-, especially in the last 10 years,” Spadaro said. “We’ve had encouraging signs. We’ve seen more grasses growing, and then two to three years from that point, it falls back.”

However, the Magothy is currently experiencing a “mussels explosion,” Spadaro said.

“That’s really a significant situation because these mussels are filter feeders. They’re like oysters, but these reproduce faster than the oysters do,” Spadaro said. “Years that we have these mussels, you will see, in a matter of weeks, improvements to water clarity.”

Spadaro anticipates a healthier year in the Magothy due to the mussels, which are a native “feast-or-bust species.”

While the Magothy and Severn rivers may reap some of the benefits of a healthier Chesapeake Bay, it’s not known how long it would take for that to happen.

“Right now, we’re not seeing the great benefit of those improvements yet, at least downstream. Upstream, we’re seeing definite benefits,” Muller said. “Nobody knows what the lag time will be, we just know it’s not going to be an immediate improvement.”

To ensure all areas of the bay are getting cleaned, all of the watershed states have specific targets they have to meet to reduce the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), Michael said. There are six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

“We have specific targets that we have to meet to reduce our loadings to the bay by the year 2025. Each state gets a certain target, and each state has developed strategies to meet those specific targets,” Michael said. “The bay TMDL, which is a regulatory tool, makes it mandated that we have to do this with [Environmental Protection Agency] oversight.”

However, the U.S. House of Representatives voted for the second time this year in July to prohibit the federal government from penalizing states from missing set targets. Maryland’s congressional delegation voted 7-0 against the amendment. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer did not vote.

The bill still has to pass through the Senate, which overrode it the first time the bill passed through the House.

“We’re hoping that the same scenario works out again this year,” Michael said. “Having that federal oversight is important. The EPA has basically a stick of funding and other things that they can mandate the states to do, and they can withhold funding. That’s why we hope that the bill is not passed as it currently was submitted by the House.”

To view the Chesapeake Bay’s 2017 report card, visit www.ecoreportcard.org/report-cards/chesapeake-bay.

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