Bay campaign flags after decade of success

December 26, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Ten years after it began in an outpouring of concern and enthusiasm, the campaign to restore the Chesapeake Bay shows signs of faltering just as it starts to make headway.

Thanks to an environmental rescue effort that has cost roughly $1.5 billion, environmentalists no longer regard the bay as dying.

But the long-term prognosis is uncertain at best for reversing decades of pollution and abuse that degraded the nation's largest and richest estuary, say scientists, environmentalists, and federal and state officials.

Cleaning up the bay's troubled waters will cost hundreds of millions more, they say, and will require major changes in farming and development at a time that financial and political support for any new environmental programs appears to be shaky.

Maryland officials insist that the bay restoration is on track, at least in this state.

"Sometimes it takes a little longer than we'd like, because we're cutting new ground. But we're getting there," said Cecily Majerus, bay program coordinator for Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

But many others fear that the effort -- often held up as a model for restoring other coastal waters -- may be losing momentum just when it needs renewed energy. Maryland officials concede that state funding for bay restoration has been pared by one-third in the past three years.

"There have been some good signs of a turnaround," said Dr. William C. Boicourt, an oceanographer at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Laboratory. "But there's a very big temptation, when progress has been shown, to declare victory and stop."

heartened was Mr. Schaefer by signs of the bay's comeback that he declared the job at least halfway finished this year.

However, others say the gains made so far pale in comparison to the task ahead.

"The patient is stabilized, but the recovery process is just beginning," said William Matuszeski, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's bay program office in Annapolis. "There are as many down indicators as there are up," he added.

Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on improving sewage treatment in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., have made the water cleaner in some of the bay's rivers, notably the Potomac and Patuxent.

As a result, underwater grasses, which almost disappeared in the mid-1980s, are making a comeback in some parts of the Chesapeake, providing food and shelter for fish and waterfowl.

And rockfish, the bay's most highly prized catch, have rebounded from the overfishing that threatened to wipe them out a decade ago.

But harvests of oysters, once the backbone of the bay's seafood industry, remain at all-time lows because of disease and destruction of their habitat.

Crabs, the remaining money catch, remain vulnerable to overharvesting, though Maryland and Virginia are moving to impose new restrictions. And toxic pollution continues to degrade the waters in Baltimore, Norfolk and other points.

Even more troubling, experts say, is the realization that the environmental gains made in the past decade were relatively easy compared with the daunting task of trying to curb polluted runoff from nearly every farm and community in the 64,000 square miles of the bay's watershed.

'Heavy lifting' ahead

"The heavy lifting, I think, is still ahead of us," Mr. Matuszeski said. He noted that the EPA's latest computer studies indicate that the states will have to boost their efforts five- to eight-fold to control runoff from farms and development.

Initiatives are needed at a time when "people are not real comfortable with how government is doing things and not willing to pay more money," said Frances Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, an EPA-backed coalition of environmentalists, business representatives and government officials.

"The novelty of saving the bay may have worn off," said Joseph Maroon, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the environmental group based in Annapolis.

"It's one thing to rally support around cleaning up sewage treatment plants," Mr. Maroon said. "Now we're dealing with how people [use] their own land or their boats. That's where the rub comes in."

Leadership changes

Another problem is the upheaval in political leadership that will occur in the bay region next year. A new Republican governor will take office in Virginia next month, and Mr. Schaefer and Pennsylvania's Gov. Robert P. Casey, both Democrats, will retire from office at the end of 1994. Some fear the turnover will slow or even set back the restoration effort.

Mr. Schaefer, chairman of the council directing the cleanup, acknowledged in September that the effort is in danger of losing steam. He said the campaign needs to be reinvigorated by enlisting new people and trying new ideas.

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