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Note: This is the first story of a multi-part series exploring the natural splendor and environmental issues of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Read about the Bay headwaters here.

People who track water quality issues in the Chesapeake Bay are accustomed to bad news. But lately some glimmers of hope have begun to emerge amidst the polluted streams, dead zones, fish kills, and algae blooms.

In April 2016, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences published its annual Chesapeake Bay report card and found clearer water, lower levels of algae, and a resurgence of sea grasses. In the same month, the Maryland Department of Environment announced that it had mapped 53,000 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation—a record amount and a clear sign of the ecosystem’s improving health. In July 2016, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported that the size of the dead zone in the Bay in late June was the second smallest since 1985.

Other data sets also show progress. U.S. Geological Survey measurements of water quality in several rivers that flow into the Bay show improvements over the previous three decades. And the late-summer dead zone in the Bay seems to be shrinking, even as the early-summer dead zone remains stubbornly large.

“The big-picture trends are moving in the right direction,” said Mark Dubin, a University of Maryland Extension scientist who focuses on how agricultural practices affect water quality. “But this is a large and complex watershed. If you focus on certain areas and watersheds, we still see plenty of indicators going in the wrong direction, such as increasing urban growth and storm water runoff, and persistent areas of high soil phosphorus.”

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NASA Earth Observatory, August 2016