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Report: Chesapeake Bay health improves, but long way to go

Bill Dennison, vice president for science application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, talks about the health of the Chesapeake Bay during the release of a report card on the bay's health after a news conference in Baltimore on Monday, May 8, 2017. Dennison said a few years ago, the bay was in "critical condition," but it's been moved from the critical list to "stable condition," and is showing signs of improvement. The report card gave the nation's largest estuary a "C" grade for overall health. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

BALTIMORE (AP) — Boosted by stronger fish populations, the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay improved some last year, but Monday’s annual report card for the nation’s largest estuary says there’s still a long way to go.

Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science gave the bay an overall score of 54 percent in the 2016 Chesapeake Bay Health Index, compared to 53 percent in 2015 and 50 percent in 2014. They are giving the bay’s health a “C” grade overall. While advocates say a “C” isn’t acceptable, they cheered signs of progress in the fight against pollution.

“A few years ago, the Chesapeake Bay was admitted to the emergency room of the hospital in critical condition … and now we’ve been able to move that patient from the critical list in the emergency room into the intensive care unit, and now it’s in stable condition and showing signs of improvement,” said Bill Dennison, vice president for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said the bay won’t get the help it needs without federal support.

“Much of what’s now better in the Chesapeake Bay has been made possible because the federal government has been a strong and stable partner,” Cardin said. “But the gains in the bay’s health will disappear quickly if the federal government vacillates in its commitment to the nation’s largest estuary.”

The Maryland Democrat noted that Congress rejected the recently proposed cuts in federal funding to the Chesapeake Bay Program and related efforts. Still, Cardin said it’s a reminder that elected officials in the bay’s watershed must keep working together to ensure the government’s dedication to the bay continues.

The Chesapeake Bay Program is a federal-state partnership that was formed in 1983 to clean up the bay.

Striped bass led the way in lifting the grade with a perfect score, followed by blue crabs and bay anchovies. All received A grades.

The report also noted improvements in seven of the bay’s regions, led by the Patapsco and Back Rivers, Patuxent River and the Lower Eastern Shore. The report cited factors including several years of moderate weather, sewage treatment upgrades and more use of cover crops by farmers.

“These scientifically rigorous report card results are telling us that we are indeed heading in the right direction,” Dennison said.

“We still have a long way to go to fully restoring the bay, so we need to have our diverse partnership of people and organizations continue to work together to reduce the runoff of sediments and nutrients into the bay,” he said.

Most of the indicators factored into the Chesapeake Bay health index remained steady last year, the report found. The total area of the bay covered by aquatic grasses increased. That’s one of the bay’s most important habitats, providing a home for important species including blue crabs and striped bass.

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