Politics of bay effort extend as far upstream as N.Y.

ON THE BAY

November 05, 1994|By TOM HORTON

First, a clarification: Because of editorial changes in last week's column, readers may have inferred that I think Ellen Sauerbrey, the Republican candidate for governor, agrees with nearly all the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's recommended positions on the environment.

The column should have advised voters to take her claim to that effect with a dose of salt. For 16 years, Mrs. Sauerbrey has consistently opposed issues supported by the foundation and other environmentalists, ranging from clean air and strip mining to recycling, endangered species and forest protection.

She opposed a phosphate detergent ban and restrictions on shoreline development; both have proved to be key measures in protecting the bay. And, in an interview, she indicated she would disagree with the "details" of several of the foundation's latest recommendations, which call for the kind of tougher regulations she has historically opposed.

*

Now, let us depart the Chesapeake Bay of crabs and oysters, coastal plain and tidemarsh, for the Chesapeake Bay of walleye and muskellenge, glacial till and finger lakes.

It is all connected, of course, by the Susquehanna River, born at the latitude of Vermont's southern border, source of nearly half the bay's fresh water, ancient carver of the great valley now submerged by the modern Chesapeake.

To the familiar tidewater names -- Calvert and St. Mary's, Norfolk, Pocomoke and Wye; Severn and James, Rappahannock, Patuxent, Piankatank -- we need to add some more:

Chemung and Chenango; Tioga, Otsego; Stueben, Unadilla, Owego and Broome -- all counties and creeks of the 10-county "southern tier" of New York state whose lands and waters incline in whole or part to the Susquehanna and the bay.

It's time, I think, to begin bringing those places into the bay restoration effort. Any doubts were dispelled by an eye-opening conference, "Susquehanna Neighbors," held last week in Owego, on the banks of the river.

In the parlance of the bay cleanup program, New York -- along with parts of Delaware and West Virginia -- is a "non-signatory." That is, they are physically part of the bay's 41 million-acre watershed but politically unconnected to it.

They have not signed ( nor ever been asked to sign) the historic December 1983 agreement in which Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the federal government committed to reversing decades of pollution and decline in the estuary.

'Uncontrollable'

That's why the pollutants flowing bayward from the non-signatory states are technically listed as "uncontrollable" by the bay program.

But of course they are real enough to the bay's aquatic life and, particularly in New York's case, substantial enough to be a concern, if not exactly our highest priority.

The Susquehanna as a whole, primarily from farms, contributes about a quarter of the bay's phosphorus and about a third of its nitrogen. Both are key in the decline of bay grasses and oxygen.

Of that total Susquehanna burden, New York, with about 23 percent of the river basin (Pennsylvania has almost all the rest), contributes about 20 percent of the nitrogen and about 15 percent of the phosphorus.

And although the southern tier counties today are largely rural and agricultural, they include cities such as Binghamton and Elmira.

Population -- and sewage or septic tank pollution -- is projected to increase across the "non-signatory" lands of the bay watershed faster than in the signatory states.

Add to this the fact that Pennsylvania already acknowledges it is likely going to come up millions of pounds short of reducing its Susquehanna pollution enough to meet its minimum goals for the year 2000 for restoring the bay.

The whole watershed, signatories and non-signatories, must be the primary approach to restoring the bay because it is the bay, encompassing all the fundamental connections of land use to water quality.

But there are more implications to this, more reasons to forge a connection with New York than just the pragmatic,

downstreamer needs to control polluted runoff.

Neighbors

The watershed is also ultimately a community of people, which includes the "upstreamers" who came to Owego last week.

As with neighbors in any community, forging connections may have benefits beyond those identifiable in economic or pollution terms.

The meeting attracted people like Russ Chaffee, fighting leukemia now, who made the bay connection some 30 years ago. He swam the Susquehanna -- 444 miles, from Cooperstown, N.Y., to Havre de Grace -- in 28 days.

Was it hard? No, he said, except for the rock he swam into, head-on, around 4 a.m. near Harrisburg. Otherwise, it was "only 16 miles a day . . . all downstream."

There was Mike Lovegreen, a farm conservation district manager for Bradford County, Pa., and a resident of Tioga County, N.Y., just across the line.

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