Bay Basins Do Some Washing Up

ON THE BAY

May 08, 1993|By TOM HORTON

The farmer has a question. Could someone tell him, please, how much manure comes from a chicken?

He has seen three different sets of numbers, and if the highest estimates are right, somebody must pay to truck the excess manure far away to keep it from getting into the Chesapeake Bay.

Another farmer wonders how a computer model done by the Environmental Protection Agency can gauge the amount of fertilizer running from cropland into Chesapeake rivers when he's not sure on his own farm "whether it's pounds or tons." "That's what we're here for, to get these things straight," Tom Simpson assures them.

Environmentalists who have butted heads with farmers over pollution could learn effective diplomacy from Simpson, a soil scientist who is Maryland's agriculture coordinator in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

"We researchers have not given you plants capable of taking up all the fertilizer you put on them," is the way he puts it. "We have a system that is inherently leaky." The bay cleanup is about "plugging leaks," he says, and farmers are responsible for some of them.

The discussion, held recently on the lower Eastern Shore, was designed to prepare for meetings that will occur in the next few months across Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, as the big-picture goals for restoring the bay finally begin hitting home at the local level.

Set up to provide information and seek public input, the meetings afford the best opportunity in years for citizens to link -- local concerns about land use, sewage treatment, development and farming to specific pollution-control strategies that will benefit both the bay and the local environment.

Since 1987, the baywide cleanup strategy has hinged on reducing by 40 percent the approximately 200 million pounds of nitrogen andphosphorus entering the Chesapeake each year from sewage and in runoff from farms and developed lands.

The two nutrients promote excess algal growth in the bay, leading to low oxygen levels when the algae decompose. A 40 percent reduction, scientists believe, is the bare minimum needed to reduce the algal growth enough to significantly boost oxygen.

Until now, the 40 percent goal had been mostly considered in terms as broad as most of the bay's six-state, 41-million-acre watershed.

This comprehensive approach has obvious virtue. But it also allowed local problems to be submerged; small farmers and others could dodge the fact that they, too, must act.

And now, during the next few months, every locality is going to have to decide what it will do to reduce its share of the burden on the bay. Each region will be told how many tons of pollution it must keep out of the bay -- and will receive a breakdown of where it is coming from, and a menu of suggested options for reducing it.

Maryland has divided the state into 10 drainage basins, all of whose rivers feed the Chesapeake. Some basins, like the Choptank and Patuxent, are single rivers. Others, like the Lower Eastern Shore, include several (Nanticoke, Wicomico and Pocomoke.) The Potomac, second largest bay tributary, is broken into three segments. These basins, or watersheds, are so much more logical than county or city boundaries in dealing with water pollution, you wonder whether they won't eventually form the basis for badly-needed regional considerations of other issues, like development and land use.

Not all is being done according to strict logic in the current cleanup, however -- nor should it. A key to the so-called "tributaries strategy" is that each of the ten basins -- and each state -- is expected to achieve its 40 percent by the year 2000, no matter what percentage of the overall problem it accounts for.

The computer models developed recently by EPA and the bay states are sophisticated enough to show that some basins, like the Potomac, with its high-tech sewage plants, could get more than a 40 percent reduction relatively easily.

Others, like the Eastern Shore, with its farms and millions of chickens, will have to make an all-out effort just to come close to the goal. Also, the computer shows that taking a pound of nutrients out of some rivers will do slightly more for the bay's oxygen problem than an equal reduction in other river basins.

So why make everyone go for the same level of control? Mainly for tworeasons, according to Rob Magnien of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "We felt a sense of equitability was important . . . that trading [responsibility] among basins sent a bad message," he says. Perhaps even more critical is this: Although raising oxygen levels in the mainstem of the Chesapeake is the overriding goal, many other nutrient-related problems are specific to individual river systems.

Primary among these is the loss of submerged grasses in the lower sections of virtually every Maryland river, as more algae clouded the water, stealing light the grasses needed to grow. The grasses were food and shelter to a variety of birds and aquatic creatures; they also protected shorelines from erosion.

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