State reveals its plans for bay cleanup

May 01, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

New state plans for restoring the Chesapeake Bay call for a crackdown on runoff from development, much greater voluntary efforts to curb farm pollution and costly upgrades of dozens of sewage treatment plants in Maryland.

The plans, prepared during the past year with local officials, farmers and citizens, provide a map for restoring the bay by cleaning up the rivers and streams that feed it.

"Now we've got to roll up our sleeves and see how we can accomplish each of these targets," said Robert Magnien, chief of Chesapeake Bay projects for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

But some local officials, scientists and environmentalists say the plans still contain holes.

The biggest gap is the bottom line -- how much this new phase will cost. State officials say they're still trying to determine the final price, but acknowledge it could be steep, with at least $145 million needed just for improving sewage treatment.

"Where's the money coming from to do this?" asked Kris Hughes, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties. Local governments, which pledged to help with the cleanup, must share in the costs of sewage treatment overhauls.

Some critics also contend that the plans overestimate what farmers will do voluntarily to curb pollution, especially since no big increases are projected in government staff or grants to help farmers practice conservation.

Covering each of the bay's 10 major tributaries, the plans outline more than 24 options for reducing nutrient pollution, seen as the bay's biggest problem. Nitrogen and phosphorus in sewage discharges, in runoff from farms and development and in fallout from air pollution contribute to declines in underwater grasses, fish and shellfish.

Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia each have pledged to reduce nutrient pollution 40 percent in the bay and its tributaries by the end of the decade. Since the partners agreed on that goal seven years ago, phosphorus entering the bay from Maryland has been reduced 27 percent and nitrogen 17 percent, by state estimates.

The tributary cleanup strategies, to be submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the end of June, are being aired at a series of public meetings around the state.

Together, the plans call for upgrading nearly 40 sewage treatment plants, mainly to remove more nitrogen from the wastewater discharged into the bay's tributaries. The cost is to be split between the state and local governments.

Baltimore's Back River sewage plant is undergoing a $24 million overhaul, and another $40 million may be spent on improving wastewater treatment at the city's Patapsco River plant, according to the plans. Similar upgrades are on tap for smaller sewage treatment plants.

The plans also call for stricter enforcement of laws to control sediment and storm water pollution from urban and suburban development.

The most ambitious recommendation, however, calls for major reductions in nutrient-laden runoff from farm fields and animal feedlots. State officials estimate that farms are the source of nearly 40 percent of the nitrogen and nearly half the phosphorus reaching the bay in Maryland.

The plans call for big increases in the number of farmers signing "nutrient management plans" committing them to voluntarily curb their use of fertilizers. On the lower Potomac River in southern Maryland, for instance, 70 percent are supposed to join in, where only 3 percent do now. Farther upstream near Washington, D.C., nearly nine out of 10 farmers are being counted on to sign up.

Farmers' participation

"If you're looking for a weak chink in [the] armor, that's it," said G. Edward Stigall, technical director for EPA's bay program office in Annapolis. "Ninety percent participation in a voluntary program is something that's never been achieved before."

Others worry that the burden of the cleanup is being spread unevenly, with city dwellers getting off easier than rural residents in some respects. For example, the plans envision a limited form of "urban nutrient management" in the Baltimore and Washington areas. Through public education campaigns, about 10 percent of households are expected voluntarily to reduce their use of lawn chemicals and to clean up after their family dogs.

State officials and farmers insist that many growers already have reduced fertilizer use, and more will follow when they realize how they can save money without jeopardizing crop yields.

"I think farmers are going to participate," predicted Norman Astle of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "The bottom line is, if they don't, several years down the road, we'll probably be looking at a mandated program."

But similarly large increases are projected in farmers' participation in other effective but costly conservation practices, such as planting grain on fields in winter to suck up nitrogen before it seeps into ground water.

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