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America's Largest Estuary in Poor Health

annual report just released by the Chesapeake Bay Program, the government office that is leading the cleanup effort with local, state and federal partners.

The sprawling watershed - where the Potomac and several other great rivers merge on their way to the Atlantic Ocean, stretches over 166,000 square kilometers and encompasses six Atlantic coast states and the nation's capital. It nourishes a multitude of marine and terrestrial wildlife. It's the source of fresh drinking water, food and recreation for 17 million people. But in recent decades, rapid population growth, farm chemical runoff and industrial activity have polluted the bay and upset the watershed's delicate ecology.

Despite a 25-year effort to restore it, the watershed is still severely degraded, according to the new report. Chesapeake Bay Program Director Jeffrey Lape says that is reflected in key indicators like water quality, wildlife habitat and fish population.

"From an ecosystem standpoint, we have 13 measures. We have rolled them up into a single index, which on a scale of 100 - using 100 as a restored bay - the bay health is at about a scale of 38."

Lape says restoration goals are also off the mark.

"We've taken the 21 restoration measures, those activities that the full array of partners are doing - again, 100 reflecting the full implementation of those measures - and together we are at about 61," he says.

The good news is that despite continuing population and agricultural pressures, the condition of the Chesapeake Bay isn't getting any worse. That's because of ongoing efforts by federal, state and especially local partners with a direct interest in the watershed's future. Richard Batiuk is chief scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Program. He says the 1,650 local governments in the region make important decisions each day that affect the health of the Bay.

"Does a Wal-Mart go here? Do I raise taxes? Do I keep my school systems close by and keep that open space around there?" says Batiuk. He adds that actions by the community "help our backyard streams and rivers and also the Chesapeake as a whole."

But restoring the Chesapeake also means considering how we build our homes, office buildings and factories. George Hawkins, director of the District Department of the Environment in Washington, says communities in the watershed are designing new buildings that conserve energy and water and pollute less. They are also upgrading older buildings to green standards and protecting land from development. Hawkins says individual actions can make a huge difference in the bay's restoration.

"There are everyday things that you can do in your home - about the pesticides you use, the fertilizers you use, what you plant, capturing storm water and using it to water your yard. All of these are steps that the homeowners and the business owners in this region can undertake."

Chesapeake Bay Program Director Jeffrey Lape looks at the new assessment with guarded optimism. He says upgrading wastewater treatment plants, dealing with storm water, changing energy use and improving air pollution controls take time.

"I think what we will hope to see next year is some very discreet examples of local improvement in streams and rivers, and then over time we will see the entire bay improve."

Lape says the science and tools are in place to restore the Chesapeake, but he adds that with 25 years of bad health reports, success can't be taken for granted. He says the new data confirms the need to widen the community of those involved in the Chesapeake's restoration and to support bolder actions to save the bay.