Bay cleanup begins at home

April 27, 2003

SPRING HAS barely settled in, and already comes bad news for this season on the Chesapeake Bay.

It seems the winter's heavy snow and rain - which were welcome from a drought perspective - have washed three years of sediment into the bay at once, choking off oxygen for marine life. Oysters are dead in their beds. The prognosis for a robust crab harvest is poor.

No one can do anything about the weather. But curbing the pollutants that wash off farms and fields and the landscapes of suburban subdivisions is a critical, if politically arduous, task. Sadly, it can't be accomplished anytime soon - though that's no excuse not to pursue it.

A quicker fix would come from upgrading sewage treatment plants in the bay watershed with the latest technology. That would get rid of 20 percent of the nitrogen that feeds algae and thus poses the single greatest threat to the bay.

All it takes is money. About $500 million to $1 billion for 66 major plants in Maryland, some from the federal and state governments and some directly from the families and businesses that flush their waste into the bay waters.

The job of upgrading the plants will get done a lot faster if the people who live and work in the bay region accept this responsibility and take on as large a share of the cost as may be necessary.

An extra $30 in utility fees per household per year is estimated to be enough if neither the cash-strapped state nor the federal government is able to pony up additional funds. And the tab may not be that high.

Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski are promoting legislation that would authorize $600 million for sewage treatment plant upgrades at the more than 300 facilities in the entire bay region. If Congress agrees to put that money in a spending bill, Maryland's share would likely be about $200 million.

The state also has a longstanding policy of helping out the local governments that operate sewage treatment plants by splitting the cost of upgrades 50-50.

But the federal government is running a huge deficit, so prospects for boosting its contribution to the bay cleanup this year aren't good.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has put the sewage plant upgrades at the top of his priority list for the bay. He's got money problems of his own, though.

Meanwhile, state environmental officials are drafting a plan for which plants to tackle and when in order to complete the technology upgrades by 2010, and thus achieve nearly a three-fourths reduction in nitrogen pollution from those facilities.

If they have to come around soon passing the hat for utility rate increases, remember the oysters and crabs - and be generous.

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