Watching the grasses grow

Chesapeake dredging: Permits would destroy underwater vegetation vital to bay's recovery.

January 08, 2001

THE CAMPAIGN to clean up and restore the Chesapeake Bay doesn't just affect factories and developers, watermen and sewage plants.

It touches things we all do. That's what recreational boaters in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties learned, as the Environmental Protection Agency opposed dredging plans in their creeks.

Dredging the deeper navigational channels in Magothy and Middle rivers would destroy 3.5 acres of newly grown, ecologically valuable underwater grasses. EPA asked the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the dredging permits sought by waterfront owners.

Restoring underwater grasses is a top priority of the multistate-federal Chesapeake Bay Program.

Of the 600,000 acres of vegetation that covered the bay, fewer than 70,000 acres remain. The vital submerged grasses feed and shelter bay creatures, clean the waters and prevent erosion.

The corps usually prohibits dredging that destroys grasses. But the reappearance of grasses in older boating channels poses a dilemma. That problem will increase with bay program pledges to restore 46,000 acres of aquatic vegetation in the next five years.

The federal EPA asked the corps to set a consistent policy, and to determine if deepening channels would prevent regrowth of underwater grasses. The corps says it can't judge longer-term impact without allowing the dredging and then studying the damages.

That destroy-and-study policy would be folly, setting the worst of precedents. There's little scientific basis for these dredge permit requests; it's mostly the convenience of property owners and boaters.

After years of massive efforts and commitment to restore the health of the Chesapeake, there's no reason to backslide on this issue. The expansion of underwater grasses is a hopeful sign, not a nuisance to be dredged up.

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