Coastal bays in Md., Del. endangered Expansion, farming pollute waters along beaches, study shows

Growth control sought

Conference considers protection, restoration techniques for shores

March 10, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Major portions of Maryland's and Delaware's coastal bays have been damaged by pollution from farming and development, says a study released here yesterday.

The four-year, $500,000 study concludes that the narrow, shallow bays alongside the two states' beach resorts are just as degraded environmentally as the Chesapeake Bay, which has been the focus of a $1 billion regional restoration effort for the past 12 years.

The study, conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the two states, was presented yesterday at a conference on finding ways to protect and restore the bays while permitting development along them.

"Our bays are fragile and easily contaminated," said Ilia Fehrer, president of the Worcester Environmental Trust. She was one of nearly 300 citizen activists, government officials, scientists and business representatives at the two-day meeting.

The study's major findings:

More than three-fourths of the bays have such poor water quality that underwater grasses cannot grow, depriving fish and crabs of important habitat.

Clams, worms and other bottom-dwelling animals on which crabs and fish feed are relatively scarce in more than one-fourth of the bays.

Fish populations in Maryland's bays seem relatively unharmed so far, but the Atlantic menhaden, bay anchovies and spot once abundant in Delaware's Indian River and Rehoboth bays have been replaced by pollution-tolerant species.

Nutrients are the main culprits in the coastal bays' decline, just as they are in the Chesapeake.

They spur algae blooms, which deprive sea grasses of sunlight and consume oxygen in the water that fish need to breathe.

Nutrients come from farm and lawn fertilizer, failing septic systems and sewage discharges.

Traces of long-banned pesticides such as DDT and other toxic pollutants also were found in bottom sediments. Scientists said they probably were residues from past use, but in some places levels were high enough to affect fish and other aquatic life.

The most seriously degraded bays are in Delaware, where sea grasses "have almost disappeared," said Frederick W. Kutz, an EPA scientist.

The only healthy sea grass beds are in Chincoteague Bay, which straddles the Maryland-Virginia border.

Maryland's more northern coastal bays -- Assawoman and Isle of Wight by Ocean City -- have water quality problems approaching those of Delaware's estuaries, the report says.

"They may not be as bad [as Delaware] yet, but they are just as threatened," said Judy Johnson, founder of the Assateague Coastal Trust, which helped organize the conference.

Particularly degraded are the tidal creeks that feed into the bays and more than 100 miles of dead-end canals that have been dredged -- almost entirely in Delaware -- to provide more water access. The study found the canals were "biologically barren."

Though much smaller than the Chesapeake, the coastal bays are important spawning and nursery grounds for fish, crabs and shellfish. They also are magnets for vacationers and retirees, as development spreads along their shores.

Philip R. Hager, Worcester County's planner, predicted that the county's population -- now about 40,000 -- would double in the next 35 years.

Unless development along Maryland's coastal bays is better managed, they could wind up as degraded as Delaware's, said Kent Price, chairman of that state's Center for Inland Bays. He predicted that Worcester County could match Delaware's development in 15 years.

Bays conference 'overdue'

James Barrett, president of the Worcester commissioners, said the coastal bays conference was overdue. He recalled catching large flounder years ago, but acknowledged that they are hard to find now and sea grasses have disappeared.

Mr. Barrett called for a "partnership" among government officials, scientists, environmentalists and business people to work to save the bays.

However, only a few elected officials and developers attended the meeting here. Their absence suggested how difficult it may be to reach agreement on how to control growth.

"The people are going to come here anyway," said Ray Smith, who is developing a 630-acre addition to Ocean Pines, a large resort community on Isle of Wight Bay. He said future growth ought to "place people on the landscape in a gentler way."

The EPA added Maryland's coastal bays to its National Estuaries Program last year, and Maryland is working to formulate a restoration plan in the next three years. Delaware already has begun a federally assisted cleanup, installing sewer lines to replace failing septic systems.

But Ms. Fehrer noted that new houses and golf courses are being built with local, state and federal approval along the shores of the most degraded creeks and bays.

"I don't know how you control it when you see the political pressure brought to bear," said Jeanne Lynch, a Worcester commissioner. "It's just so hard to say no."

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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