A good week for the Chesapeake Bay $200 million grant: Conservation program signals important shift in public attitudes.

October 24, 1997

MARYLAND IS about to receive $200 million in federal funds to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay by converting farmlands to wetlands and forests. This is encouraging for more than monetary reasons. It signals a shift in public consciousness -- a growing understanding of the relationship between agriculture and clean water, a realization that forests are more than trees and that marshes are more than soggy grasses.

Even now, many Americans think of pollution in terms of filth from factory and sewage pipes. Yet we have substantially reduced this kind of pollution over the past 2 1/2 decades thanks )) to the federal Clean Water Act, which cracked down on industry and sewage treatment plants. The slowdown in the bay's decline since the 1960s -- a phenomenon that still leaves it in poor health -- can be attributed to these regulations.

Citizens and elected leaders in Maryland and elsewhere have been reluctant to confront the reality that further progress means tackling delicate political and practical problems dealing with land development and agriculture. More buildings and asphalt mean fewer forests and wetlands, which filter pollutants. Plowed fields erode into the water, along with fertilizers and manure. These sources of pollution are scattered and hard to pin down. They have been the major threat to water for some time.

It has not been easy, accepting that a cornfield is worse for the environment than a buggy marsh. But the U.S. Agriculture Department's new "conservation reserve" program, authorized by Congress last year, shows we are learning where priorities lie. Such reserves were started in the 1980s to prop up farm prices by paying farmers federal money to idle their land; environmental benefits were incidental.

Under the new approach, funds will be concentrated on lands that affect fragile ecosystems. In Maryland, the focus will be saving sensitive woodlands and wetlands, especially near the bay, and creating buffers along streams and rivers to stem runoff. The program should significantly help the bay.

But no one should think of it as a magic bullet or a way around the touchy subject of the need for accountability from farmers, for whom pollution management is voluntary and unmonitored. Yes, less pollution will wind up in a stream buffered from cropland by forests. Still, we need to know how much contamination the buffer is being asked to absorb.

Achieving accountability without burdening farmers unduly is the next challenge in the quest for clean water. The nation's new-found awareness of the importance of the issue makes us optimistic this challenge can be met.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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