WASHINGTON BXB — WASHINGTON -- Maryland could lose from one-half to 80 percent of the meadows and forests now defined as wetlands if the Environmental Protection Agency approves a more strict definition of what a wetland is, Maryland environmental experts and lawmakers said yesterday.
In field tests on 17 state wetland sites, it was determined that at least eight -- and possibly as many as 14 -- of the sites would no longer qualify for federal protection under the strict EPA proposals, said Michael Slattery, senior project manager of the nontidal wetland division of the state Department of Natural Resources.
Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-8th, worried that if those results were applied statewide, as much as 80 percent of Maryland's wetlands would be open to development.
Slattery presented the field test results to the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee, which is considering legislation to require a yearlong study on wetlands before new regulations are implemented.
Joining him to testify about Maryland wetlands were two biologists -- Dennis Whigham, a research ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and Robert J. Pierce of Wetland Science Applications, a private consulting firm in Poolesville, who disagreed on whether the EPA's stricter proposals should be implemented.
If Maryland loses a significant percentage of its wetlands, Chesapeake Bay and the plants and animals that depend on the bay would be the obvious, but not the only, losers, environmental experts agreed.
Hunting -- a $500 million industry in Maryland -- would be hurt if nontidal wetlands are destroyed, Slattery said.
Maryland municipal sewage treatment plants could face tougher and more costly effluent standards, as well, said Timothy Searchinger, of the Environmental Defense Fund.
"If you lose the wetlands that are picking up a lot of the nitrogen" from run-off pollution, that means the burden to reduce nitrogen levels in the bay falls to municipalities, Searchinger said.
"It is a pocketbook issue for Maryland homeowners," Searchinger said.
The Smithsonian's Whigham agreed. Based on his research on the Rhode River, as much as 99 percent of the nitrogen and 90 percent of the phosphorus from agriculture are filtered out by Maryland's wetlands and never make it into the bay.
Whigham, Slattery and others called the EPA proposals scientifically unsound, too time-consuming and complicated and costly for states to implement.
The new definition is so complicated "a staff with better than average expertise would not be able to apply the manual" to wetlands, Slattery said.
He and other regulators called on Congress to approve legislation to have the National Academy of Sciences study the proposed regulations and make recommendations on ways to improve them.
The EPA, in conjunction with several federal agencies that oversee wetlands, announced the new wetlands definition in August, after months of infighting between regulators and the Bush administration.
The proposals are the result of thousands of complaints from landowners, developers and farmers who said the 1989 wetlands definition kept property owners from building on dry fields and cutting dry forests.