The health of the Chesapeake Bay decreased last year — for the first time in a decade — because of increased pollution caused by record rainfall, according to a nonprofit group keeping track of the bay’s restoration.

In the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s biennial State of the Bay report, released Monday, the group found that 2018’s heavy rainfall increased stormwater and farmland drainage into the bay, mostly from Pennsylvania. That led to higher levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, while also affecting water clarity.

The bay’s health grade dropped to a D-plus from a C-minus in 2016. 

“Simply put, the bay suffered a massive assault in 2018,” said Will Baker, the foundation’s president. “The bay’s sustained improvement was reversed in 2018, exposing just how fragile the recovery is.”

Still, Baker highlighted good news as well: Bay grasses remain intact, and recent studies have shown an improving trend in the long term for underwater dead zones, which are low-oxygen conditions that can suffocate underwater life and shrink habitat.

The bay’s watershed encompasses parts of Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as all of the District of Columbia.

“The good news is there are signs the bay is developing a resilience that may help it overcome long-term damage caused by record storms and rainfall,” Baker said.

The report also found that Virginia was close to meeting the goals the state made in 2017 as part of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, a multistate effort to restore the bay’s health, and highlighted a bright spot related to Virginia’s oyster industry. 

The health of the oyster industry in the Chesapeake Bay obtained a low rating from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, with harvests down nearly 45 percent in Maryland in 2016 and 2017.

In Virginia, however, oyster harvests remained steady at roughly 600,000 bushels. The report notes that reef reconstruction in the Lafayette River, completed in 2018, will contribute toward the future health of the industry. Harvest figures in the state are bolstered by a growing farmed-oyster industry in the state. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s executive director for Virginia, Rebecca Tomazin, said she hopes that the report’s release, just two days before the start of the General Assembly, will draw attention to conservation issues.

She said that for Virginia to meet its outstanding commitments toward the blueprint, the state “needs to accelerate pollution reduction from agriculture, and urban and suburban runoff.”

Tomazin said her group will support Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal to boost funding for the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share program, which gives farmers subsidies to improve the way water moves through their property.

The foundation is also backing a $50 million funding boost for Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, a program that helps localities deal with runoff.

“Urban and suburban stormwater runoff continues to be the one source of pollution in the bay that is still growing,” Tomazin said. “There are other sources, like farmland runoff, but stormwater is getting worse.”

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254
Twitter: @MelLeonor

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.