Bay pact targeting rivers and grasses expected this week Critics complain new effort merely skims the surface

August 10, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

The effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay will expand to include cleaning up the bay's rivers and restoring its underwater grasses when region officials meet Wednesday in Annapolis.

Officials from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government plan to sign a seven-point agreement that calls for restoring water quality in the bay's 10 major tributaries, where most of the estuary's fish feed and spawn. A draft of the agreement was obtained by The Sun.

Officials also will pledge to restore the bay's underwater grasses, vital fish habitat which have been slowly returning since they all but vanished in the early 1980s. The proposed pact calls for practically doubling current grass beds to 120,000 acres by the end of the decade.

But environmentalists and some legislators complain that the new agreement, which builds on the Chesapeake Bay Agreement -- the bay cleanup pact signed in Baltimore in 1987 -- does not go far enough.

The cornerstone of that agreement was a pledge to cut nutrient pollution from sewage plants, farms and development 40 percent by the end of this decade. But environmen

talists contend that despite some progress, the states are not doing enough to combat farm and toxic pollution and suburban sprawl, all part of the original Bay agreement.

"If we don't address these issues, then we don't think we're going to make the kind of progress that is necessary to restore the bay," said Ann Powers, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Annapolis-based environmental group recently wrote a letter the governors of the three bay states, criticizing the proposed pact. Foundation officials plan to release the letter today .

State Sen. Bernie Fowler, D-Southern Maryland, said the proposed agreement is "a very forward move" but "it isn't quite all we hoped for." Mr. Fowler is chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents legislators from the three bay states.

An aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday that such criticisms are off base. The new plan focuses only on curbing the bay's nutrient pollution because the states agreed five years ago to take another look at that problem at this time, said David Carroll, the governor's bay program coordinator.

Though not detailed in this agreement, plans are being drawn up deal more aggressively with farm and toxic pollution, Mr. Carroll said.

The bay suffers from an over-enrichment of nutrients, which can trigger massive algae "blooms." Those thick growths of tiny aquatic plants block sunlight needed by underwater grasses. And when the algae die, their decay uses up all the dissolved bTC oxygen in the water that fish need to breathe.

A three-year study, aided by a sophisticated computer model, indicates that if the states stick to their goal of reducing nutrients by 40 percent, the vast area of "dead" water on the bay bottom in spring and summer will shrink between 20 percent and percent. That should be enough to restore many bay grasses and bring back the fish, officials said.

Levels of one major nutrient, phosphorus, have dropped 19 percent in the bay since the mid-1980s, mainly because of improved sewage treatment and phosphate detergent bans. But despite control efforts, nitrogen from fertilizer, farm animal waste and air pollution has risen 2 percent.

Now, in recognition of the importance of the bay's tributaries, officials plan to clean them up enough so they can sustain underwater grasses and fish again. The new agreement pledges to draw up recovery plans for each of the 10 major river systems in the next year.

The tributaries are the Susquehanna, Patapsco, Patuxent, Potomac, Choptank, Nanticoke, Rappahannock, York, James and Chester rivers.

The governors also plan to commit to holding nutrient pollution down beyond the end of the decade, despite future growth in population and development, said William Matuszeski, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's bay program.

Even environmentalists agree that the pact is a major improvement in the $400-million-a-year bay restoration effort. They also hail the commitment to restore underwater grasses, since reviving the bay's depleted fish and shellfish stocks are the ultimate goal.

But several studies have warned that the bay may never recover its health unless more is done to curb runoff of nutrient-rich fertilizers and animal wastes from farm fields and suburban lawns.

Farms account for nearly 40 percent of the phosphorus entering the bay and more than half the nitrogen, according to the EPA. Yet only about 5 percent of all cropland in the bay's vast 64,000-square-mile drainage basin is now covered by voluntary plans for curbing use and runoff of the damaging nutrients.

"Agriculture is going to have to do more," said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, who unsuccessfully sponsored a bill this year to require farms to curb fertilizer and pesticide use.

Others say more aggressive action is needed to curb air pollution, sprawling development and the runoff of mud, nutrients and toxic chemicals from city and suburban streets.

There is a chance that the proposed pact may be revised to address environmentalists' concerns when the governors and EPA Administrator William K. Reilly meet Wednesday. But some issues may have to wait until next year. Mr. Carroll noted that a review of toxic pollution efforts is not yet finished.

But "the time to act is now," contended Ms. Powers of the bay foundation. "Every year we wait, the problems we have to deal with are going to grow."

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