Bay Is Better But Not Well, Officials Say

Multistate Effort Credited In Cleanup Of Rivers Since 1984

`Awful Lot Of Work To Do'

Despite Improvements, Estuary Still Is Seen As Ecologically Degraded

April 24, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Most rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay are running clearer, but the bay overall is a long way from being restored to the natural vitality it once had, Maryland's congressional delegation learned yesterday.

While water clarity, underwater grasses and some fish stocks have rebounded -- dramatically in the case of striped bass -- speakers at a Capitol Hill briefing said the bay remains ecologically degraded -- with oysters, shad and sturgeon still scarce and with troubling indications of subtle damage from low-level toxic pollution.

"We're doing well, but we have an awful lot of work to do," said Fran Flanigan, director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

William Matuszeski, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay office in Annapolis, told the delegation that levels of nutrient pollution fouling the bay's waters have started to decline in most of the major tributaries.

He and others at the briefing credited the multistate cleanup begun in 1984 for cleaning the rivers, mainly by upgrading sewage treatment plants and getting farmers to reduce pollution runoff from their land.

For instance, he noted, plans have been written for managing nutrients or limiting soil erosion on about 3 million acres of the bay region's 7 million acres of cropland.

Despite such actions, Matuszeski said water quality has not improved much in the 180-mile-long bay. But he blamed that mostly on the region's unusually wet weather three of the past four years. Heavy rains and snowstorms have washed more nutrients from farm and yard fertilizers and animal waste into the rivers, which dump them into the bay.

An oversupply of nutrients from treated sewage, farm and suburban runoff and air pollution has turned vast areas of the bay's depths into dead zones with too little oxygen for fish, crabs or shellfish. Nutrients stimulate algae growth, which blocks sunlight needed by underwater plants and robs the water of oxygen needed by fish.

EPA and the bay states pledged a decade ago to reduce nutrient pollution 40 percent by 2000. With just three years to go, officials are taking stock of how much more needs to be done.

Matuszeski said he was encouraged that the bay's pollution did not worsen even with the heavy runoff of nutrients.

"It's taking the hits, showing some resiliency," he said.

Another speaker, Ann Pesiri Swanson, director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said the cleanup effort apparently has succeeded in "holding the line" against further declines in the bay that might have resulted from the region's growing population, development and intensified farming practices.

"Were it not for the efforts of the last 25 years, Chesapeake Bay would be , if not dead, pretty close to it," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The head of the Annapolis-based environmental group contended that, despite some modest improvements, "the state of the bay is not good at all."

Oyster harvests in recent years have only been 1 percent of historic levels, Baker noted.

"Shad are so scarce you're not allowed to catch them, and sturgeon are all but extinct," he said.

While officials touted last week an increase in bay grasses, Baker noted that it was a slight rebound that did not match the previous two years' decline.

And the environmental activist warned that "the crush" of another 3 million people projected to move into the bay region in the next two decades could undermine whatever improvements have been made.

"This requires a continuing effort," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat representing Southern Maryland. He was one of five members of the state's delegation of two senators and eight members the House to attend the briefing.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat and head of the delegation, said the briefing showed "we still obviously have a tremendous challenge" in trying to restore the bay.

Swanson, whose commission includes state legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, said Congress can help by ensuring continued federal funding for research and conservation, and by not weakening existing air pollution laws.

Flanigan, whose citizen alliance is mostly federally funded, said she was concerned that EPA has trimmed its $20 million Chesapeake Bay program budget by $1 million this year, the first decline in many years. Matuszeski said the cut was part of an agencywide budget-tightening.

"That is a step in the wrong direction," Flanigan said. "We need to be increasing that money, not reducing it."

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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