Bay plan faulted by EPA

August 20, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's latest plan for restoring the Chesapeake Bay is under fire from the Environmental Protection Agency, which doubts that enough of the state's farmers will voluntarily curb pollution from their fields and feedlots.

In a letter written earlier this month, the EPA's Chesapeake Bay office in Annapolis contends that farmers must be compelled to participate in what are now mostly voluntary conservation programs if the state hopes to clean up the bay's rivers and streams.

That assertion was quickly rejected by Maryland officials, who say farmers will respond better to appeals for their cooperation than to government regulations.

"We have no reason to question the farm community's willingness to do it," said Cecily Majerus, the governor's bay restoration coordinator. There are "long waiting lists," she said, of farmers seeking state help in reducing polluted runoff from pastures and croplands.

The EPA had no other major criticism of Maryland's strategy for reducing nutrient pollution in the rivers and stream systems that feed into the bay.

In his letter, William Matuszeski, the EPA's bay program director, wrote that the state is counting on getting farmers to reduce fertilizer use on about 60 percent of the state's croplands. That is roughly six times the acreage now involved.

While that level of farmer participation is not unheard of in some federal soil conservation programs, Mr. Matuszeski questioned whether it was possible in Maryland's bay effort.

Neither the state nor Washington plans to devote more money or staff to programs that help farmers limit fertilizer use and curb runoff, he noted.

Private help is available, but at a cost of about $5 an acre, Mr. Matuszeski said. "The check to do this is going to be written by the farmer," he said. "How do you get the farmer to do that voluntarily?"

The EPA lacks authority to reject the state's cleanup plan, since the bay restoration campaign is a cooperative effort by the states and federal government.

"But the question remains: What if the strategy doesn't appear ++ to get us there?" Mr. Matuszeski asked.

The EPA's concerns echo those of environmentalists.

Elizabeth E. Zucker, staff scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said reliance on farmers' voluntary cooperation is unrealistic. The state, she said, should draft backup regulations that would be imposed if not enough farmers join the effort.

Ms. Majerus, the governor's bay program coordinator, said that farmers already know they could face mandatory rules if the current program fails and are responding. From 13 percent to 18 percent of Maryland's croplands are now under nutrient management, and in some small stream basins targeted for special efforts, nearly all farmers agreed to participate.

"It's going to be very very tough, but I think we're capable of doing it," said David A. C. Carroll, state environment secretary.

The cleanup plans, one for each of 10 bay tributaries, are the latest phase in a campaign begun nearly 11 years ago to restore the bay to its former vitality. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia each have pledged to reduce nutrients reaching the bay by 40 percent by the end of the decade.

Nutrients in sewage discharges, in fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns, and in fallout from air pollution are degrading water quality, contributing to declines in the bay's underwater grasses and fish.

Since the mid-1980s, levels of one key nutrient, phosphorus, have been reduced 27 percent, and of the other, nitrogen, 17 percent.

The tributary plans, drafted earlier this year, also call for upgrading up to 50 sewage treatment plants and for tightening controls on runoff from newly developed land.

Other environmentalists say that lack of money is the major problem.

"I don't see how they're going to get there, period, with the existing level of resources," said Frances Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

State officials have estimated that the cleanup's costs, now running about $200 million a year, will have to increase to $272 million a year to reach nutrient reduction goals. Spending is being cut, rather than increased, and state officials project a $96 million annual shortfall.

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