Another step to save the Chesapeake

Robert Perciasepe

February 28, 1991|By Robert Perciasepe

IN 1987 Governor Schaefer joined with leaders of the other bay states in signing the Chesapeake Bay Agreement. Phosphorus and nitrogen are the nutrients most damaging to water quality, and a key coimmitment of the agreement was an ambitious goal to reduce nutrient loads to the bay by 40 percent by the year 2000. To meet the goal, we must act now to pass the Maryland Growth and Chesapeake Bay Protection Act.

The first steps necessary to clean up the bay were clear: find the sources of pollution and control them. With state-of-the-art technology and a massive commitment of public and private money, we've made great progress in cleaning up discharges from sewage treatment plants and industrial sources.

Cleaning up the sources of pollution has been a challenge, but controlling other kinds of pollution will be even tougher. Bay pollution doesn't stop at the end of the pipe or the top of the smokestack. Rainwater running off streets, farms and yards carries damaging pollutants and sediments. Even some pollutants originating from cars are eventually deposited in Chesapeake waters.

The thrust of the act is to concentrate growth, rather than following the current trend of sprawled development. The growth provisions in the act would spare an estimated 229,500 of the nearly 2.7 million acres of existing forested and open-space lands from residential or mixed-use development over the next 30 years.

This means that as much as 96 million pounds of sediment annually would not end up in the bay. That's enough to cover over a thousand acres of the bay's floor each year with a layer of sediment thick enough to damage fragile shellfish beds. In addition, up to 1.35 million pounds of nutrients annually could be kept out of Maryland waterways. That's four times the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen discharged from all the sewage treatment plants on the Patuxent River each year.

Under the growth management plan, new development would be concentrated around employment and retail centers, reducing the distance people must drive to work and shop. If we could cut the growth rate in vehicle miles traveled by just 10 percent, we would prevent nearly 20 tons of auto pollutants from being released into Maryland's air each day -- equivalent to the reductions achievable by installing vapor-catching nozzles on every gasoline pump in the state. Auto emissions are major contributors to ground-level ozone (fog) and the bay's nutrient loadings. These reductions in miles traveled could also save nearly two million gallons of gas daily.

Our current scattershot approach to managing growth creates a host of environmental problems. Lasting benefits are achievable if we act boldly, work together and strive for more than just the status quo. It's time Marylanders move positively to change the way we grow, or all of us will suffer costly economic and environmental consequences.

Robert Perciasepe is secretary of the state Department of the Environment.

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