Funding for restoration may ebb as Congress tries to balance budget POLITICAL TIDE TURNING AGAINST THE BAY

July 06, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

By land, sea and air, they hunt for signs of recovery in Chesapeake Bay -- and hope that Congress does not impede the search.

Clad in a worn wet suit, Robert J. Orth jumps off a boat and dives to look for dwindling underwater grass off Virginia's Stingray Point, so named because centuries ago Capt. John Smith received a painful introduction there to life in the bay.

Some 500 feet above the Chesapeake, in a 42-year-old plane crammed with instruments, Lawrence W. Harding Jr. scans the water's surface for glints of color that could spell life or death for fish and crabs this summer.

Meanwhile, on terra firma at her new laboratory beside the Patuxent River, Cynthia C. Gilmour peers at a computer display of a drop of water. It teems with bacteria -- suspected accomplices in the bay's ecological suffocation.

These Chesapeake scientists and others share a quest: to help the bay recover from the nutrient pollution that produces vast "dead zones" where marine animals cannot survive, for lack of dissolved oxygen.

Always in the vanguard of the 11 1/2 -year-old restoration effort, scientists have identified key villains such as nitrogen and helped set priorities for cleanup spending, which exceeds $1 billion so far.

But a new conservative Congress, intent on shrinking the federal government, is squeezing bay science in the process -- and also the follow-up restoration.

Environmental programs and science have endured and grown over the years, with staunch support from a Democratic-controlled Congress. But a political sea change has swept over Capitol Hill in Washington, bringing with it a new majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats determined to balance the federal budget and rein in overweening regulators.

"Indeed, if the election last November was about anything, it was about our reforming government control, top-down government regulations," said Rep. Bud Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who steered a sweeping revision of the federal Clean Water Act through the House in May. During the floor debate, Mr. Shuster declared that federal efforts to clean up polluted waterways was "one of the areas crying out for reform."

Environmentalists and Maryland's governor contend that many of the changes approved or pending in Congress go too far.

"There is an assault on environmental protection that I haven't see in 20 years here," said William C. Baker, president of the

Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "I don't think yet that people perceive the threat to the bay that is there."

He considers it ironic that Congress is jeopardizing the cleanup, since many lawmakers make the short trip from Washington to enjoy the Chesapeake. "It's ignorance, not intention, that causes [environmental] declines," he said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he fears that deep cuts in federal spending could delay the cleanup of nutrient pollution into the next decade. "With the loss of money, we may struggle through," he said.

But the proposed relaxation of federal environmental laws worries him far more, Mr. Glendening said. Of particular concern are measures that would open up many wetlands to development and require government compensation if regulations lower property values.

A large amount of land "will be built on and paved over," the governor said. "How do we protect the bay under those conditions?"

No one connected with the restoration contends that Congress has made it a specific target. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they want to preserve the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, the principal federal entity of the bay cleanup project.

But just as a net draws strength from all strands, the cleanup gets help from many federal sources. The EPA bay program receives $22 million a year, and other federal agencies provide an additional $16 million. The bay also benefits from general environmental spending by the government, totaling $300 million the Chesapeake region.

That safety net is being tested this summer by strong currents on Capitol Hill:

* The drive to balance the federal budget, requiring nearly $900 ++ billion in reduced spending for domestic programs during the next seven years.

* The push for regulatory relief for landowners, business and municipalities.

* The reduction of government support for "applied" science that benefits commercial interests, such as the seafood industry.

"We've been putting [too much] money into 'corporate welfare' as opposed to basic science," said a spokeswoman for Rep. Robert S. Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Science Committee.

Science is scout, monitor

Dr. Orth's work on submerged grasses shows the importance of bay research, not only in guiding the restoration effort but in measuring progress.

Two primary goals of the cleanup are: reducing nutrient pollution -- nitrogen and phosphorus -- 40 percent by the year 2000, with 1985 as the baseline, and restoring underwater vegetation to 114,000 acres by 2005, from the 38,000 acres recorded in 1984.

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