Environment takes legislative hit


Setback: Significant budget cuts will hinder the DNR's ability to protect and restore the bay.

April 26, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ASK LEGISLATORS what they did for the environment in the recent General Assembly session, and they'll have legitimate good news for you.

They strengthened the Critical Area Act that protects the Chesapeake Bay's shoreline against development, and extended Critical Area protection to the bays on Maryland's seaside.

They responded to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's last-ditch appeal to restore $8 million to his Smart Growth and open-space programs.

But overall, this was a session in which environmental protection went backward, a session that raises serious concerns whether Maryland will meet commitments to restore bay water quality by the end of the decade.

It's not just the big blows the legislature dealt, which got news coverage, such as raiding nearly $100 million from open-space acquisition funds.

It's also the proverbial "death by a thousand cuts": the reductions made this year in unpublicized, but crippling, ways throughout state natural resources budgets.

Only a bureaucrat, perhaps, worries about cuts to "travel" and "management studies," about being assigned a higher "turnover rate," and postponement of "new enhancements."

But look beneath the surface of these at an agency such as Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, which has a lead role in making sure the state meets the 105 specific commitments to restore the Chesapeake Bay that the governor signed in 2000.

Take "management studies." These include the department's water-quality monitoring stations, which take the pulse of the bay and its tributary streams, which track the potential for deadly outbreaks of Pfiesteria, and which provide the scientific bases for regulating the polluting impacts of industry, municipal sewage plants and local land use.

DNR's monitoring is stretched thin, with only a single long-term station on the whole Eastern Shore, none in Southern Maryland, and one (federally funded) in Baltimore Harbor.

The department has already stretched its capabilities by supporting private water-quality watchdogs such as Save Our Streams ($70,000 a year, all likely to be cut).

DNR also developed Streamside Waders, a network of nearly 200 volunteer water-quality samplers (to be cut to 76 volunteers, because DNR can't afford to support them).

And when the legislature cut DNR's travel budget this year, it wasn't whacking trips to conventions; it was eliminating the agency's ability to send personnel to monitoring stations throughout the state.

DNR also was assigned a higher "turnover rate." If you have annual employee turnover of, say, 10 percent a year, the budget cutters assume you aren't paying full salaries year-round, and reduce your budget accordingly.

In this case, DNR's funding was based on an unusual period of high turnover, which has since settled back to a lower rate. The bottom line is another whack at the agency's ability to protect the environment.

Then there's "new enhancements" -- money to start, if only in a small way, bigger bay restoration goals set for 2010.

A $290,000 program to test techniques for replanting and restoring submerged aquatic grasses and to involve schoolchildren was cut. Another $200,000 to develop new water-quality standards specific to each part of the bay, which should help guide restoration, also got cut.

The list goes on and on:

The $3 million restoration program to fulfill a pledge to increase oysters in the bay tenfold by 2010 -- cut in half.

$2.6 million to install buffers of natural vegetation between farms and waterways to intercept polluted runoff -- halved.

The $1.3 million program to transport manure, a huge bay problem, from areas with too much to areas that can use it -- cut to $260,000.

Monitoring and research aimed at conserving the blue crab, the last great bay fishery, now at historic lows -- cut from $409,000 to $95,000.

An excellent program to help developers reduce storm-water runoff, the fastest growing source of bay pollution -- $250,000 cut entirely.

Then there's Program Open Space, the genius of which was linking land preservation to the pace of development, drawing funds from a half percent tax on property as it is sold.

The legislature took nearly half of all open-space money for this year and next -- despite bay commitments to save hundreds of thousands more acres. It did not, of course, vote to slow development across Maryland by half.

"Unfortunately, we're not the meat and potatoes of state government. It was easier to go after conservation spending than prescription drugs for grandmothers," said Mike Nelson, the DNR official who oversees Program Open Space.

Maybe the legislature, which could have delayed a $177 million tax cut, worth $75 to the average family of four, should stop claiming it is committed to restoring the bay, which requires moving forward, not backward.

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