Finally turning a crucial corner Estuaries: The coastal bays of the Delmarva Peninsula lack the attention of the Chesapeake Bay but they face the same problems.

On the Bay

July 19, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ALL MARYLAND IS divided among three watersheds, though you might not know it given the attention to the Chesapeake Bay, whose drainage basin includes most of the state, and most of our environmental attention.

A lesser-known one is the Gulf of Mexico, whose drainage extends to the westward-sloping sliver of Garrett County between Backbone Mountain and West Virginia.

The gulf's problems may be greater than the Chesapeake's, with a "dead zone" of low-oxygen water that some years covers thousands of square miles. But this stems more from Midwestern farm pollution than anything trickling from Oakland, Friendsville or Sang Run.

In the state's easternmost watershed, however, the problems are home-grown. These are the coastal bays of Worcester County: Assawoman, Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent and Chincoteague.

Compared with the Chesapeake's 41 million-acre basin, their watershed is small -- 112,000 acres, bounded by Ocean City and Assateague Island on the east and roughly by U.S. 113 and Route 12 on the west.

Similarly, the coastal bays are surrounded by about 22,000 people, compared with the 15 million or so in the Chesapeake's six-state watershed.

But in another respect, they are the bigger bay's equal.

In 1993, state and federal agencies sampled 200 sites throughout the coastal bays, from Rehoboth and Indian River bays in Delaware to the Virginia portion of Chincoteague Bay.

Overall, "the coastal bays were found to be as degraded as the Chesapeake Bay or Delaware Bay," the scientists concluded.

The diversity, abundance and kinds of bottom-dwelling organisms, or benthos, are an excellent indicator of health in such extremely shallow waters. Their average depth is about 4 feet, compared with around 21 feet in the Chesapeake.

More than a quarter of the bays' bottoms showed significant degradation; and more than 75 percent of the bays' water quality was too poor to support the submerged grasses that are so critical to huge varieties of fish and birds.

Not surprisingly, the worst conditions were found to the north, in Delaware, where the drainage includes the most acres that have been developed, the most farmland and the most poultry (therefore manure).

Conversely, Chincoteague Bay, with less human and farm animal pollution, was the cleanest. The bays of the Ocean City area were somewhere between.

One bright note: The variety and abundance of fish in Maryland's bays have not declined much from surveys of 20 years ago. Delaware's bays showed marked declines from surveys done 35 years before.

But the fundamental story emerging from the bays is all too predictable. Human sewage, farm chemicals and manure -- even air pollution -- together are overfertilizing the waters. That depletes oxygen, devastates grass beds and undercuts the basis of the estuarine food webs on which an estimated 90 percent of the nation's commercial fisheries depend.

Loss of wetlands to drainage and development, cutting of forests, pressure from boating and pesticide runoff also play a role -- again, nothing new.

Look around the world, where more than half the population inhabits about 5 percent of the land, much of it along the coastal edges and embayments. Declines in sea grasses, depleted oxygen and diminished fisheries are common to every continent.

While a major restoration program has been under way for more than a decade in Maryland's Chesapeake watershed, the seaside lagoons had been known as Maryland's "forgotten bays."

They simply were left out of protective legislation for the Chesapeake enacted during the 1980s, even as Worcester rivers like the Pocomoke, which drains to the Chesapeake, were included.

That left habitats around the shorelines of the coastal bays ill-protected, even as the Critical Area Act gave considerable protection in the rest of the state's tidal waters for 1,000 feet back from the water's edge.

All this began to change last month. Maryland's coastal bays became the latest entry into Environmental Protection Agency's National Estuary Program. Modeled on the cooperative, federal-state-local restoration effort pioneered on the Chesapeake, the program now includes 28 areas, from Puget Sound to New England.

The estuary program represents for the EPA, embattled as it is nowadays, a maturation from an agency whose beginnings a quarter-century ago were rooted in freshwater lakes and rivers.

For years, the agency refused to treat estuaries -- mixtures of salt and fresh water, neither ocean nor river -- as the different beasts they are, needing more complex cleanup approaches.

The coastal bays will get more than a million federal dollars in the next three years to devise and carry out specific protections, with more funding likely to follow.

It won't be a smooth path to success. Delaware, whose coastal bays were enrolled years ago in the National Estuary Program, still hasn't bitten the bullet on agricultural pollution. Even the Chesapeake cleanup suffers lack of leadership from Pennsylvania and Virginia, and a weakened federal presence. And like all the estuary programs, the coastal bays effort largely is voluntary.

Still, a crucial corner has been turned. Citizen participation and scientific research have been set in motion and given official status, and neither will go away.

Both should exert ever more pressure on elected officials to do what's right by the environment -- an environment that is crucial to Maryland's seacoast remaining an economic plus.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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