Environmental report card finds health of bay is failing

Regional

October 24, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The health of Chesapeake Bay slid backward last year, hampered by water pollution, development and threats to the blue crab fishery, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In its annual report card, the nonprofit environmental group said the bay's health dropped a point, from 28 to 27 on a scale of 100. The score marked the first decline in recent years.

The perfect score represents the estuary's condition when European settlers arrived. Foundation members concede that level cannot be achieved, but say they would settle for a score of 70.

"After two decades of modest improvements, the bay remains dangerously out of balance," said William C. Baker, foundation president. "It's time for our leaders to take a stand and get on with cleaning up the bay."

At an Annapolis news conference, Baker said state and federal governments have failed to require coal-burning power plants to improve pollution controls, to support farmers and to finance improvements at sewage treatment plants so that they can reach new discharge standards. The resulting nitrogen and phosphorus have "mired the bay's health," he said.

"We need to cut this pollution in half before underwater grasses, crabs, oysters and other life will thrive in an abundant bay system," Baker said.

Maryland has courted farmers to plant streamside forest buffers rather than growing crops to the edges of streams, but most federal dollars for that program have been directed to large farms in the Midwest. An amendment to a House bill that would have directed more money to farms in the East fell eight votes shy of passage, but Baker said the Senate will soon take up a similar measure.

Coal-burning power plants in the Ohio River valley have long been blamed for pollution problems in the East because the smokestack gases float on prevailing winds and fall onto farms, forests and waters from the Chesapeake Bay north.

The report card is based on an analysis of 12 indicators, including open space, wetlands, underwater grasses, water quality, and fish and shellfish stocks. Foundation scientists found no change in eight of the categories. Declines in crab stocks offset improvements in shad stocks and the acreage of forest buffers.

But there is good news, Baker said: an $8.5 billion plan to improve the bay's health signed by the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the mayor of Washington and federal officials. New York and Delaware's governors signed a memorandum of understanding to join the pollution fight during the summer.

Baker estimated that the $8.5 billion comes to about 15 cents per person in the bay watershed per day. "The bay is worth it," he said.

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