Report: Chesapeake Bay, getting better, but still not great

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Water from the West Branch of the Susquehanna River eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The river is shown in this view taken from the bridge on Market Street in October 2016.

Scientific data from three separate organizations shows improvement in the Chesapeake Bay, albeit slight. However, Pennsylvania still is at the back of the conservation pack.

That’s according to the latest annual report on the environmental health and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, released Wednesday by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

“This confirms that our collective efforts to reduce pollution and restore balance to this important ecosystem are having their intended effect,” said Nick DiPasquale, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Despite the noticeable improvements, DiPasquale added that the bay still is “nowhere close” to meeting the desired level of improvement.

The Chesapeake Bay Program, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the University of Maryland for Environmental Science have comprised data that evaluates various aspects of the bay and assesses its pollution level.

The data shows that the bay has improved its ecosystem resiliency, its oyster reefs are being rebuilt, the water quality is rising and bay grasses are being restored.

But a large portion of the bay pollution still is due to Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry, primarily in Lancaster County, which is a hotspot for farmers, according to state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, and chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a state government organization devoted to the bay.

Everett said the commission has focused a lot of its efforts in Lancaster because it is a heavily farmed county and a high percentage of bay pollution comes from farm water runoff that enters streams and rivers.

Focusing on key areas will help to take some of the pressure off other areas in the state that are not introducing as much pollution to the bay, such as Lycoming County.

“A lot of this is not regulatory at this point,” Everett said, adding that the goal is to “help farmers voluntarily do things that will help them be better farmers and help to clean the water at the same time.”

With the onset of some Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and the expectation of more in the future, Everett said the state and farmers will be in a better position if they implement best management practices voluntarily, instead of by force later.

The deadline for the state to meet the EPA’s standard level of improvement for the bay is 2025; however, Everett had said the likelihood of it achieving that goal is slim.

Two of the primary hindrances come from a lack of state funds and legislators who are unmotivated to invest in the bay.

The state’s funds already are stretched thin and, with a number of other statewide issues such as education and the heroin crisis, devoting funds to reducing water pollution can be a hard sell, according to Everett.

Additionally, while the Chesapeake Bay watershed takes up a large portion of the state, heavily populated areas such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie do not fall within its reach and don’t see it as a primary concern, Everett said.

“If we don’t do this voluntarily, EPA is going to make this a Pennsylvania problem that we are all going to have to pay the bill for,” Everett said.