Coastal Bays Records ‘Significant’ Sea Grass Decline

SNOW HILL — Over the next few years, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) wants to grow public and private partnerships and make Worcester County a more attractive target for grant funding, according to a briefing given by MCBP Executive Director Dave Wilson at Monday’s County Commission meeting.

The commissioners told Wilson that they are committed to waterway restoration and protection in the area, though there were a few disagreements over MCBP policy language on issues like stormwater and climate change.

Wilson’s report to the commissioners this week was a mixed bag of good and bad news. Environmental factors continue to trouble the watershed, including the loss of substantial sea grass within Chincoteague Bay.

“Warming sea temperatures and really high phosphorous levels have really done a number on sea grass in the Chincoteague Bay to the point now where the total sea grass within the coastal bays is about 5,400 acres, which is a significant decline,” said Wilson.

Nutrient reduction and stormwater management also remain long-standing issues with no signs of an immediate resolution. Fortunately, Wilson has said that MCBP has made progress in developing the kinds of community partnerships that he believes will be vital to protecting area waterways. He gave a nod to the University of Maryland, which has been working alongside MCBP to study local water health.

Overall, the coastal bays remain in average condition. The 2013 Coastal Bays report card lists the total grade as a “C+”, the same as the 2012 report, with Sinepuxent Bay listed as the healthiest waterway and Newport Bay in the most danger. MCBP is hoping for significant cooperation from Worcester moving forward on a variety of programs aimed at improving that report.

The commission was generally favorable but found some sticking points. Worcester can’t solve waterway issues on its own and Commissioner Judy Bogs questioned if the outside support, especially out of state, is in place.

“I know that we’re seriously impacted by Virginia. Has any real progress been made or is it at a stalemate?” she asked.

Virginia has progressed in the last year, Wilson replied, becoming “more amenable to conservational work” and concentrating further on improving the Chincoteague Bay.

Most of the comments on the briefing came from Commissioner Jim Bunting, who went down a list of questions or concerns that he had with the MCBP policies. He had an overreaching worry that Worcester was being put on the spot as a “lead partner” for too many potential projects. Reviewing all developments created prior to 1984 for stormwater management, for example, was one area where Bunting questioned how much the county would have to invest in funds and staff hours.

Bunting also took issue with some of the MCBP policy language referring to Worcester’s role in assisting with programs that would seek to investigate or combat the effects of climate change since he questioned that such a thing even exists.

“I’m just wondering what the cost again would be for Worcester County for investigating something that 33,000 scientists worldwide have signed on to not believing in and I, frankly, don’t believe in,” he said.

Wilson reported the area’s sea level rise has been twice the global average, pointing to some kind of issue.

The commission promised it would be devoted to improving waterway health, though would like to see some tweaks to MCBP policy language before committing to specific programs involving “incentives” and “requirements.”