Roughly 4,500 acres of wetlands are being lost every year in the Chesapeake Bay region through illegal filling and loopholes in government regulation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says.
In a report to be released today, the Annapolis-based environmental group says that despite government pledges to ensure "no net loss" of remaining wetlands, the amount of marshland bulldozed or drained every four years equals in size Dorchester County's vast Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
Wetlands -- from salt marsh to freshwater bog to damp woods -- act as natural filters for pollution and provide food and shelter for fish, shellfish and waterfowl.
There are still nearly 1.7 million acres of wetlands in the six-state, 63,000-square-mile region that drains into the bay, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But that acreage is only a sliver of what once existed; Maryland alone has lost nearly three-quarters of its original marshland, more than any other state in the Middle Atlantic region, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
State and federal restrictions -- including Maryland's 1989 law regulating building in nontidal, or freshwater, wetlands -- have slowed but have not halted the loss of this vital resource, the bay foundation says.
"There are still loopholes in the law large enough to drive a dump truck of fill dirt through," said Douglas B. Inkley, an ecologist at the National Wildlife Federation, adding that the losses around the Chesapeake mirror those in the rest of the nation. He called for strengthening wetlands protections in the federal Clean Water Act.
The bay foundation, meanwhile, appealed for stricter enforcement of existing rules and better coordination between state and federal agencies responsible for protecting wetlands. It also urged government to use wetlands replacement as a last resort, arguing that man-made marshes often fail to work the way the original did.
Officials with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers, the two agencies chiefly responsible for issuing wetlands permits in Maryland, said they generally agreed with the foundation's conclusions, and they pledged to look into how their efforts could be improved.
"It exposed some areas that need to be tightened up," said William A. Jenkins, DNR's chief of nontidal wetlands. "Most of them we already know about."
Margaret Ann Reigle, head of the Fairness to Land Owners Committee, which has fought wetlands regulations, dismissed the report as alarmist. She said government regulations actually contribute to wetlands losses by barring waterfront landowners from installing bulkheads to halt shoreline erosion.
Wetlands regulations have come under attack from developers and advocates of private property rights. They complain of long delays in getting permits and costly restrictions on the use of their land.
The bay foundation report, however, says regulators almost always approve landowners' applications for permits to build in wetlands. Only about one in 10 cases even gets close scrutiny, the report says, and most requests for permits are handled within seven months.
State and federal regulators have succeeded in preventing some wetlands losses, particularly in Maryland, the report says. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources prods developers to redesign projects to reduce wetlands losses, and it also pushes for replacing lost acreage with new, man-made marshland.
But losses are still occurring outside the regulations, said Thomas Grasso, a lawyer in the bay foundation's Maryland office.
Farming, forestry and some construction activities are often exempt from permit requirements. And some wetlands are being filled illegally and go undetected because of inadequate enforcement efforts.
Even when regulators require replacement of wetlands, it does not always occur.
The bay foundation report relies on a recent federal study of aerial photographs for its estimate of baywide wetland losses.